Archive for December 23rd, 2012

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A swimming clam from the Pliocene of Cyprus

December 23rd, 2012

In the summer of 1996, I was a co-director of a Keck Geology Consortium project in Cyprus. One of my students was Steve Dornbos (’97), now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. We had a great time exploring the Nicosia Formation (Pliocene) and its fossils on the Mesaoria Plain near the center of this Mediterranean island. (We published the study — Steve’s Independent Study thesis at Wooster — in 1999.)

One of our most common fossils in the Nicosia Formation is shown above. It is the pectinoid bivalve Amusium cristatum Röding, 1798. It is a remarkably thin and delicate shell that still retains much of its color after over four million years. Note that it is almost completely equilateral, meaning that it is nearly symmetrical. There’s a functional reason for this we’ll get to later.

Amusium is a genus still very much in existence today. They are usually found in abundance on carbonate platforms, often in the deeper portions. They are called “saucer scallops” or “moon shells” by collectors. There are many living species of Amusium, and they are apparently good eating (see below a platter from Thailand).

Both the genus and species of Amusium were named by Peter Friedrich Röding (1767–1846), a German shell specialist from Hamburg. He wrote a 1798 sale catalogue of a mollusk collection, providing the first publication of over 1500 taxonomic names. His descriptions were minimal, but enough to meet the requirements for new taxa, including Amusium cristatum.

Now, what is the functional importance of the symmetry of this particular scallop? Turns out it is one of the best swimmers in the bivalve world. By clapping its valves together with its strong adductor muscle, Amusium can swim at an average of 37-45 cm/second, usually for 8-10 seconds. Symmetry of the shell gives it good control over swimming direction. Features that also enhance the swimming abilities of Amusium include strengthening ribs (visible in our specimen above), a centrally-located adductor muscle, and a mantle that can direct water expulsion during the “clapping” actions of swimming.

We can be certain, then, that Amusium cristatum was a beautiful and unusually active mollusk in those shallow seas that once covered the beautiful island of Cyprus.


Aguirre, J. 2009. Biological concentrations of Amusium cristatum. Journal of Taphonomy 2-3: 263-264.

Dornbos, S.Q. and Wilson, M.A. 1999. Paleoecology of a Pliocene coral reef in Cyprus: Recovery of a marine community from the Messinian Salinity Crisis. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen 213: 103-118.

Morton, B. 1980. Swimming in Amusium pleuronectes (Bivalvia: Pectinidae). Journal of Zoology 190: 1469-7998.

Röding, P.F. 1798. Museum Boltenianum sive catalogus cimeliorum e tribus regnis naturæ quæ olim collegerat Joa. Fried Bolten, M.D. p. d. per XL. annos proto physicus Hamburgensis. Pars secunda continens conchylia sive testacea univalvia, bivalvia & multivalvia. – pp. [1-3], [1-8], 1-199. Hamburgi, Trapp.

Williams, M.J. and Dredge, M.C.L. 1981. Growth of the saucer scallop, Amusium japonicum balloti Habe, in central eastern Queensland. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 32: 657–666.