Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Iron-oxide oncoids (“snuff-boxes”) from the Middle Jurassic of southern England
Mark Wilson July 1st, 2016
These fossils (in the broad sense!) are inevitable for our weekly feature considering how much time we spent studying and collecting them during last month’s fieldwork in Dorset, southern England. “Snuff-boxes” are the subject of Cassidy Jester’s (’17) Senior Independent Study project, so here we’ll just broadly cover what we think we know about them.
These discoidal objects are called “snuff-boxes” because their carbonate centers (usually a bit of limestone or shell) often erode faster than their iron-oxide exteriors, making them weather a bit like boxes with lids.
This quote from Buckman (1910, p. 67) is the earliest reference I can find to the snuff-box term. Snuff-boxes were sometimes works of art in the 18th and 19th centuries, although quarrymen probably had more homespun varieties in mind.
We’re counting these snuff-boxes as fossils here because they formed through biotic and physical processes. The cortex of a snuff-box has layers of serpulid worm tubes, as shown above.
There are also cyclostome bryozoans embedded within the iron-oxide layers, as shown in this image from Palmer and Wilson (1990, fig. 3).
We believe the snuff-boxes grew by accretion of microbially-induced layers of iron-oxide formed on their undersides, which would have been gloomy caverns on the seafloor. They then would have occasionally turned over and grew layers on the other side. Many snuff-boxes have extensions on their peripheries that look in cross-sections like horns, as seen above. The layers are separate from those that formed around the nucleus. They may have grown after the snuff-box became too big to be overturned by currents or animals.
Paul Taylor and I looked at the cortex of a snuff-box with Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and had the above surprising view. The odd platy materials may be limonite, an iron-oxide that is amorphous (non-crystalline).
Sometimes the plates look like they’ve partially evaporated, leaving remnants that resemble Hebrew letters!
Associated with the snuff-boxes are small “iron ooids” that are about sand-size. They too have the platy materials, and so their origin may be similar to that of the snuff-boxes.
Cassidy has an interesting project ahead of her testing various origin hypotheses and sorting out the paleontology, mineralogy and geochemistry.
Buckman, S.S. 1910. Certain Jurassic (Lias-Oolite) strata of south Dorset and their correlation. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 66: 52-89.
Burkhalter, R.M. 1995. Ooidal ironstones and ferruginous microbialites: origin and relation to sequence stratigraphy (Aalenian and Bajocian, Swiss Jura mountains). Sedimentology 42: 57-74.
Gatrall, M., Jenkyns, H.C. and Parsons, C.F. 1972. Limonitic concretions from the European Jurassic, with particular reference to the “snuff-boxes” of southern England. Sedimentology 18: 79-103.
Palmer, T.J. and Wilson, M.A. 1990. Growth of ferruginous oncoliths in the Bajocian (Middle Jurassic) of Europe. Terra Nova 2: 142-147.