Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A disturbingly familiar coral from the Middle Jurassic of southern Israel
Mark Wilson April 3rd, 2015
Our fossil this week is one I don’t share with my Invertebrate Paleontology classes until they’re ready for it. Those of us who grew up with Paleozoic fossils think we recognize it right away. Surely this is a solitary rugose coral? It has the right shape and the fine growth lines we call rugae (think “wrinkles”). This view below of the oral surface is not surprising either, unless you’re an enthusiast of septal arrangements.
Instead of a rugose coral, though, this is a scleractinian coral from the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian) of Hamakhtesh Hagadol, Israel. It is part of the collection of Matmor corals Annette Hilton (’17) and I are working through. This coral belongs to the genus Axosmilia Milne Edwards, 1848.
These corals are excellent examples of evolutionary convergence. The scleractinians are only very distantly related to the rugosans. They do not share a common ancestor with a calcareous skeleton, let alone a cone-shaped one like this. Instead the scleractinians like Axosmilia developed a skeleton very similar to that of the solitary rugosans, probably because they had similar life modes in similar environments, and thus similar selective forces. The rugosans, though, built their skeletons out of the mineral calcite, whereas the scleractinians use aragonite. (This specimens are calcite-replaced, like our specimen last week.) The vertical septa inside the cone are also arranged in different manners. Rugosans insert them in cycles of four (more or less), giving them a common name “tetracorals”; scleractinians have septal insertions in cycles of six, hence they are “hexacorals”. Rugose corals went extinct in the Permian; scleractinians are still with us today. Our friend Axosmillia appeared in the Jurassic and went extinct in the Cretaceous.
Rugose coral skeletons in the Paleozoic are commonly encrusted with a variety of skeletal organisms, and many are bored to some degree. I expected to see the same sclerobionts with these Jurassic equivalents, but they are clean and unbored. I suspect this means they lived semi-infaunally (meaning partially buried in the sediment).
Axosmilia was named by the English-French zoologist Henri Milne-Edwards (1800-1885) in the politically complex year of 1848. Henri was the twenty-seventh (!) child of an English planter from Jamaica and a Frenchwoman. He was born in Bruges, which is now part of Belgium but was then under the control of revolutionary France. Like many early 19th century scientists, Milne Edwards earned an MD degree but was seduced away from medicine by the wonders of natural history. He was a student of the most accomplished scientist of his time, Georges Cuvier, and quickly became a published expert on an amazing range of organisms, from crustaceans to lizards. The bulk of his career was spent at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. When he was 42 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society, receiving from them the prestigious Copley Medal in 1856. He died in Paris at the age of 85.
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