This summer I joined a team describing a shell bed in the Upper Cretaceous (lower Campanian, about 80 million years old) Wadi Umm Ghudran Formation exposed northeast of Amman, Jordan (at N 32° 09.241′, E 36° 12.960′, to be exact). I hope someday to visit Jordan, so this work may be my introduction.
The fossils are diverse, including oysters, corals, gastropods and a bivalve of the Family Veneridae shown above. I was struck by how similar this fossil is to its very common modern cousin Mercenaria mercenaria (shown below).
The modern clam shell above, by the way, was one dissected by Invertebrate Paleontology students last year.
These venerid clams are infaunal, meaning they live within the sediment. Thus when east-coasters go “clamming” on a beach they are digging up clams like this from the sand at low tide. They use short tubes (siphons) like watery snorkels to suck in seawater to be filtered through their gills for suspended food particles. Since they live in the sediment their shells are usually clean of encrusters or borers while alive. After death the shells are usually cycled up to the surface and then encrusted and bored as seen below. This is an interesting feature of the Jordanian fossil shell bed — some shells are articulated and clean as the shell at the top; others are disarticulated and heavily bored. Clearly some shells were buried alive and others died long before final internment.
Venerid bivalves are heterodonts, meaning they have “different teeth”. These are not teeth for eating but rather parts of the clam’s hinge structure that hold the valves together. The shapes and sizes of these teeth are used to sort these clams into genera and species. Again, as you can see below, the teeth of the Cretaceous clam are similar to those of the modern shell, but with enough differences to make them separate genera.
The Family Veneridae is entirely marine and includes over 500 living species, many of which are delicious, I’m told. The most common clam consumed in the USA is Mercenaria mercenaria, known as the hard clam or quahog. There are 55 extinct genera in this family, which appeared first in the Early Cretaceous (Cox et al., 1969; Canapa et al., 1996).
This rather plain and common fossil will be the key to deciphering the history of our shell bed in Jordan. Sometimes the most useful fossils are the least flashy.
Canapa, A., Marota, I., Rollo, F. and Olmol, E. 1996. Phylogenetic analysis of Veneridae (Bivalvia): Comparison of molecular and palaeontological data. Journal of Molecular Evolution 43: 517-522.
Cox, L.R. et al. 1969. Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, pt. N, Bivalvia vol. 2. The Geological Society of America, Inc. and The University of Kansas.