Tag Archives: Fossil Friday

Identification – Sea urchin fossil

Did you know we identify items for free? Whether it’s a rock from a field or a mystery something from the back of the shed, just bring it in to the Museum and we’ll take care of the rest! (If it’s too big or heavy, just send us an email with a photo).

This piece of flint with a strange marking on it was found in Wethersfield, near Braintree.

The flint nodule has preserved the impression of part of a sea urchin, or echinoid (pronounced ek-in-oid).

The shape you see is the external mould of a single plate of the echinoid’s ‘test’, or shell. When a sea urchin dies or is eaten, the test will often break apart into the individual plates.
Flint is formed from a silica-rich goo which hardens over time, and must have formed on top of this echinoid plate and taken its shape. The plates are made from calcium carbonate and this one will have dissolved away over time, leaving the impression behind.

The shape of the plate suggests it belongs to a species in the genus Cidaris. Saffron Walden Museum has a similar echinoid, Stereocidaris sceptrifera, fossilised in chalk, on display as no. 23 in the How Did They Live display in the geology gallery (below, top). In life, the club-like spines would have been attached to the plates. One of the Museum’s volunteers took this photo of a similar echinoid found at a chalk pit in Grays, Essex (below, bottom).

Fossil in chalk of the extinct sea urchin Stereocidaris sceptrifera, on display in the Museum’s geology gallery. SAFWM : 2020.42.23

The plate in the flint nodule (and the plates in the photos) is an interambulacral plate, which make up most the test of a sea urchin. They fill the space between the ambulacral zones, which are the areas where the urchin’s tube feet pass through the test. Tube feet are used for movement and to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the water for respiration. Sea urchins have 5 ambulacra arranged in a star shape, showing that they are related to starfish.

The Natural History Museum has a good page showing the structure of a sea urchin test: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/echinoid-directory/morphology/regulars/intro.html

The British Geological Survey has an interesting page with good photos of similar fossil echinoids – look out for Temnocidaris (Stereocidaris) sceptrifera about halfway down, and Heterocidaris wickense at the bottom: https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discovering-geology/fossils-and-geological-time/echinoids/

Another link to the NHM with photos of Stereocidaris fossils: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/echinoid-directory/taxa/taxon.jsp?id=1115

 

 

 

Object of the Month – October

Dark stone with faint tracing of a fossil flower in two petal shapes

October’s Objects of the Month are pieces of fossilised plants.

Fossils can form in different ways depending on where they form and the type of plant or animal. Most fossils come from the hard parts of animals such as bones, teeth or shells. For plants, wood is the most common material to fossilise because it is quite hard, and takes longer to rot away than other parts.
Soft leaves and flowers need to be buried quickly in deep sediment like mud or volcanic ash where the low oxygen levels mean they won’t rot. Once underground, plant material can fossilise in different ways.

Compression

Dark stone with faint tracing of a fossil flower in two petal shapesThis flower is probably preserved by compression, like pressing and drying it in fine mud over millions of years. Heat and pressure deep underground turned the mud to stone and forced moisture and gases from the leaf at the same time.

The main ingredient in living plants is carbon, so a thin, black, carbon-rich film is all that’s left. In most fossils, new minerals replace the original material. But because this is a compression fossil, the carbon-rich film is the exact same carbon that was in the plant millions of years ago. Soft-bodied animals like squid can also be preserved like this.

Impression

Dark stone showing inpression of a fern leaf, with fronds alternating in an exaggerated sawtooth pattern

© SWM

This fern leaf, or frond, is preserved as an impression. When something soft is preserved by compression, the shape of it is also preserved as an impression, like pressing a leaf into soft mud or clay and then removing it.

This fossil is one part of a small rock nodule which was split in two to show the leaf – this part shows the impression of the frond. Because compression and impression fossils usually form together, the word ‘adpression’ describes both at the same time.

Petrification

Wedge of dark fossil wood, narrow at left. Lines of pale grey run top-bottom showing growth rings.

© SWM

Fossilised wood is often called ‘petrified’ wood, meaning wood ‘turned to stone’. It happens when the materials (cellulose and lignin) that make up the solid part of wood are replaced by minerals, turning it to stone.

Minerals dissolved in groundwater seeping through the sediment settle as solids in the microscopic cell walls of the wood as the cellulose and lignin slowly rot. This can create a perfect stone copy of the original structure of the wood.

See these objects up close in Curiosity Corner throughout October.

Object of the Month – June 2020

June’s Object of the Month celebrates Volunteers’ Week. These fossils have been cleaned and recorded by two dedicated geology volunteers, helping to audit the thousands of fossils held in the Museum’s stores. The project is suspended at the moment, but we all look forward to getting back together when times are better.

These fossils are from the Red Crag layers, which are the reason Walton-on-the-Naze is famous for marine fossils. The sandy Red Crag rocks and fossils were laid down in the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs between 3.3 and 2.5 million years ago, when a warm, shallow sea and bay covered most of Essex. The fossils have stained red-brown over time due to iron-rich water washing through the sandy rock.

The first fossil is a species of whelk, Neptunea contraria, which is still alive today (extant, rather than extinct). This species has an unusual left-spiral shell, hence the word contraria in its scientific name. Almost all species with a coiled shell have a right-hand spiral.

Neptunea contraria

Cardita senilis

Cardita senilis is a species of bivalve, a group which also includes oysters, mussels and scallops. These molluscs have a flattened body protected by two shells or valves joined by a hinge. A bulge near the hinge, called the umbo, is the oldest part of a growing shell, and is at the centre of the growth rings that can sometimes be seen on the surface.

Spinucella tetragona is an extinct species of predatory sea snail, in a group known as murex snails or rock snails. This species’ shells are highly ridged, but other extant species (such as Chicoreus aculeatus) have exaggerated and complicated patterns of spines on their shells, which makes them very popular with shell collectors.

Chicoreus a

Spinucella tetragona

Chicoreus aculeatus

Oyster: Ostrea species

Later Pleistocene fossils from Essex, such as the oyster, don’t really ‘belong’ here at all. They were brought south or churned up from older rocks by glaciers during the Pleistocene Ice Age, which lasted from 2.5 Mya to 12,000 years ago. They appear in glacial drift deposits left behind as the glaciers grew and shrank. This fossil of Chicoreus aculea is actually from the Jurassic period (201-145 Million years ago).

All images © Saffron Walden Museum, except C. aculeatus: H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Identification – Ammonite in sandstone

One of the most interesting parts of working in museums is helping people discover something new (and I usually learn something new myself). A really important way for museums to do their job as a welcoming public source of information is by identifying mystery objects that you might find on a walk, on a seaside holiday or even in your garden or attic.
Anyone can bring in an item for us to identify, for free, and you should have an answer within a few weeks. It might look a bit like this:

Ammonite in sandstone

This piece of stone is a Jurassic fine-grained sandstone or sandy limestone, which may be from the Lias Group rock unit found on the Dorset coast, although it has a sandier appearance and rougher texture than the rocks usually found in this formation. If it is from the Dorset Lias formation, the rock is roughly 195 to 200 million years old, and the fossils it contains would be a species of Promicroceras ammonite, which are common along the Dorset coast.

Fossil of a Promicroceras ammonite.
Image: Ammojoe CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

The bristleworm, Polydora ciliata. Image: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History [CC0] (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The surface pattern of pores in the rock was made much more recently. They were probably made by a species of Polydora worm, probably Polydora ciliata. P. ciliata is a small, rock- or shell-boring worm which can grow up to 30mm (1 1/8 in.) long, and is also known as a bristleworm.

P. ciliata burrows in stone. Image: Rosser1954 CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Bristleworms are thought to burrow into rock or shell by scraping away at the surface using specialised bristles on the fifth segment of its body, although it may also secrete chemicals such as weak acid to help. It digs a U-shaped burrow, which appears on rocks as distinctive small slots or a ‘sunglasses’ shape.

 – James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

 

Object of the Month -September 2018

September’s Object of the Month is a collection of fossilised teeth chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

These fossilised teeth come from the extinct fish Ptychodus (pronounced tie-co-duss) which lived across the Americas, Europe and Asia. They are closely related to modern sharks and rays, but may not have been direct ancestors. Some species grew up to 10 metres long, feeding on the large shellfish that existed during the Cretaceous period, 66–145 million years ago. Although they had similar diet and teeth to modern rays, they looked more like modern nurse sharks, which cruise the seabed for small fish and shellfish.

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