Wooster geologists have again greatly benefited from the donation of a collection by an alumnus. George Chambers (’79), a successful professional photographer, sent us several boxes of minerals, rocks and fossils he had acquired in his lifelong passion for geology. (George was a geology major at Wooster in the class just after mine.) Among the many world-class specimens he gave us are two fossil ophiuroids (brittle stars). They are Ophiopetra lithographica Enay and Hess, 1962, from the Lower Hienheim Beds (Lower Tithonian, Upper Jurassic) near Regensburg, Germany. They are part of the “Fossillagerstätte Hienheim“, a preserved brittle star ecosystem in a lagoon at the edge of a Late Jurassic sea. This is the same set of lithographic limestones in which the famous bird fossil Archaeopteryx was found.
In both these images you see the spiny arms of the brittle stars twisted about. It is their flexibility and snake-like movements in life that provoked the scientific name ophiuroids (serpent-forms) for the brittle stars. The “brittle” term comes from their ability to autotomize (spontaneously detach) their arms when threatened, leaving a squirming distraction for a predator as they escape.
Ophiopetra lithographica is probably the most common fossil brittle star known. It was preserved by the countless millions in these Jurassic lagoons in Germany. Most geologists believe they were buried by fine-grained carbonate sediment suspended by sudden storms. As you can see in the above close-up, the preservation of the plates and spines is remarkable.
Most brittle stars are suspension feeders (sorting out food particles from the water), deposit feeders (eating organic material in the sediment) or scavengers. Ophiopetra lithographica may have been a carnivore with its heavily-spined arms and strong jaws. It likely ate small arthropods on the seafloor.
The evolution of brittle stars is interesting and controversial. They were relatively common in the Paleozoic and then just barely survived the Permian extinctions. Their rapid evolution into a variety of taxa in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic has led to many debates about their phylogeny. Even the placement of Ophiopetra into a family is a problem. Does it belong to the Family Aplocomidae where it was originally placed or to the older Family Ophiolepididae as has been recently suggested?
Our students will enjoy these fine fossils in the invertebrate paleontology course. They have doubled our collection of brittle stars! Thank you again to George Chambers for his thoughtfulness and generosity.
Enay, R. and Hess, H. 1962. Sur la découvertes d’Ophiures (Ophiopetra lithographica n.g. n.sp.) dans le Jurassique supérieur du Haut-Valromey (Jura méridional). Eclogae geologicae Helvetiae 55: 657-678.
Hess, H. and Meyer, C.A. 2008. A new ophiuroid (Geocoma schoentalensis sp. nov.) from the Middle Jurassic of northeastern Switzerland and remarks on the Family Aplocomidae Hess 1965. Swiss Journal of Geosciences 101: 29-40.
Röper, M. and Rothgänger, M. 1998. Die Plattenkalke von Hienheim (Landkreis Kelheim) – Echinodermen-Biotope im Südfränkischen Jura. Eichendorf (Eichendorf Verlag), 110 S.
Stöhr, S. 2012. Ophiuroid (Echinodermata) systematics—where do we come from, where do we stand and where should we go? In: Kroh, A. and Reich, M. (Eds.) Echinoderm Research 2010: Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference on Echinoderms, Göttingen, Germany, 2–9 October 2010. Zoosymposia, 7: 147-161.
Thuy, B., Klompmaker, A.A. and Jagt, J.W.M. 2012. Late Triassic (Rhaetian) ophiuroids from Winterswijk, the Netherlands; with comments on the systematic position of Aplocoma (Echinodermata, Ophiolepididae). In: Kroh, A. and Reich, M. (Eds.) Echinoderm Research 2010: Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference on Echinoderms, Göttingen, Germany, 2–9 October 2010. Zoosymposia, 7: 163-172.