An exceptional example of the fractal building of an ammonite septum, in this clytoceratid Argonauticeras besairei from the awesome José Juárez Ruiz.
Ammonites were predatory, squidlike creatures that lived inside coil-shaped shells.
Like other cephalopods, ammonites had sharp, beak-like jaws inside a ring of squid-like tentacles that extended from their shells.
They used these tentacles to snare prey, — plankton, vegetation, fish and crustaceans — similar to the way a squid or octopus hunt today.
Catching a fish with your hands is no easy feat, as I am sure you know. But the Ammonites were skilled and successful hunters. They caught their prey while swimming and floating in the water column.
Within their shells, they had a number of chambers, called septa, filled with gas or fluid that were interconnected by a wee air tube. By pushing air in or out, they were able to control their buoyancy in the water column. They lived in the last chamber of their shells, continuously building new shell material as they grew. As each new chamber was added, the squid-like body of the ammonite would move down to occupy the final outside chamber.
They were a group of extinct marine mollusc animals in the subclass Ammonoidea of the class Cephalopoda.
These molluscs commonly referred to as ammonites are more closely related to living coleoids — octopus, squid, and cuttlefish — than they are to shelled nautiloids such as the living nautilus species.
Ammonoidea can be divided into six orders:
- Agoniatitida: Lower Devonian – Middle Devonian
- Clymeniida: Upper Devonian
- Goniatitida: Middle Devonian – Upper Permian
- Prolecanitida: Upper Devonian – Upper Triassic
- Ceratitida: Upper Permian – Upper Triassic
- Ammonitida: Lower Jurassic – Upper Cretaceous
Ammonites have intricate and complex patterns on their shells called sutures. The suture patterns differ across species and tell us what time period the ammonite is from.
If they are geometric with numerous undivided lobes and saddles and eight lobes around the conch, we refer to their pattern as goniatitic, a characteristic of Paleozoic ammonites.
If they are ceratitic with lobes that have subdivided tips; giving them a saw-toothed appearance and rounded undivided saddles, they are likely Triassic. For some lovely Triassic ammonites, take a look at the specimens that come out of Hallstatt, Austria and from the outcrops in the Humboldt Mountains of Nevada.
If they have lobes and saddles that are fluted, with rounded subdivisions instead of saw-toothed, they are likely Jurassic or Cretaceous. If you’d like to see a particularly beautiful Lower Jurassic ammonite, take a peek at Apodoceras. Wonderful ridging in that species.
One of my favourite Cretaceous ammonites is the ammonite, Hoplites bennettiana (Sowby, 1826).
This beauty is from Albian deposits near Carrière de Courcelles, Villemoyenne, near la région de Troyes (Aube) Champagne in northeastern France.
At the time that this fellow was swimming in our oceans, ankylosaurs were strolling about Mongolia and stomping through the foliage in Utah, Kansas and Texas. Bony fish were swimming over what would become the strata making up Canada, the Czech Republic and Australia. Cartilaginous fish were prowling the western interior seaway of North America and a strange extinct herbivorous mammal, Eobaatar, was snuffling through Mongolia, Spain and England.
In some classifications, these are left as suborders, included in only three orders: Goniatitida, Ceratitida, and Ammonitida. Once you get to know them, ammonites in their various shapes and suturing patterns make it much easier to date an ammonite and the rock formation where it is found.
Ammonites first appeared about 240 million years ago, though they descended from straight-shelled cephalopods called bacrites that date back to the Devonian, about 415 million years ago, and the last species vanished in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.
They were prolific breeders that evolved rapidly. If you could cast a fishing line into our ancient seas, it is likely that you would hook an ammonite, not a fish. They were prolific back in the day, living (and sometimes dying) in schools in oceans around the globe. We find ammonite fossils — and plenty of them — in sedimentary rock from all over the world.
In some cases, we find rock beds where we can see evidence of a new species that evolved, lived and died out in such a short time span that we can walk through time, following the course of evolution using ammonites as a window into the past.
For this reason, they make excellent index fossils. An index fossil is a species that allows us to link a particular rock formation, layered in time with a particular species or genus found there.
Generally, deeper is older, so we use the sedimentary layers of rock to match up to specific geologic time periods, rather like the way we use tree rings to date trees. A handy way to compare fossils and date strata across the globe.
References: Inoue, S., Kondo, S. Suture pattern formation in ammonites and the unknown rear mantle structure. Sci Rep 6, 33689 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep33689
Photos: Argonauticeras besairei from the awesome José Juárez Ruiz.
Photo: Hoplites bennettiana from near Troyes, France. Collection de Christophe Marot
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