Add this to the list of fossils that have confused me. This summer, during a Wooster expedition, Lizzie Reinthal and Steph Bosch collected the above specimen from the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian) of southern Israel. I simply assumed it was an ammonite, especially because we were anxious to find ammonites to further reinforce our biostratigraphic framework (how we tell in which geological time interval our fossils belong). When I later tried to identify it by searching through the Jurassic ammonite literature, though, I could find nothing like it. I then sent a photograph to my friend Zeev Lewy, a prominent ammonite expert recently retired from the Geological Survey of Israel. His answer was a surprise: this fossil is the gastropod Discohelix tunisiensis Cox 1969.
How could this be a snail when it looks so much like a cool, multi-whorled planispiral ammonite, complete with ribs? Well, it is not planispiral, now that I look at it again. Above you see the other side of the specimen, with its slightly depressed center. Most ammonites don’t show such asymmetry. This actually is a gastropod, and it represents an ancient group (the clade Vetigastropoda — don’t get me started on the complications of gastropod systematics!) with primitive features reminiscent of Paleozoic marine snails (from a group I learned to call “archaeogastropods“). It is not as much that the snail has converged on an ammonite style of shell, it’s that the ammonites developed a similar shell much later for entirely different reasons (swimming, for example). Discohelix was likely an herbivore grazing in patchy coral reefs like we have represented in the Matmor Formation. It has become a useful index fossil for the Jurassic of the Tethyan Realm, although this is the first time I’ve found it in Israel.
The above is the marine snail Pseudotorinia (Architae-group) retifera. It used to be called Discohelix retifera, and you can see why. It may not be in the same genus, but you can see that this modern group and Discohelix are closely related. Discohelix itself is now known only from the fossil record.
Discohelix was named as a genus in 1847 by Wilhelm Bernhard Rudolph Hadrian Dunker (1809-1885), a German natural scientist with interests in geology, paleontology and marine zoology. (I love that middle name of “Hadrian”.) Like so many 19th Century paleontologists, Dunker started with a practical training in mining engineering and then followed a passion for fossils and modern shells. He had a huge collection of materials that eventually ended up in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. He traded and corresponded with many top scientists of his day, including Charles Darwin. He also published many monographs on modern and fossil molluscan taxa. In 1846, he and Hermann von Meyer established the journal Palaeontographica. This journal survives to this day in two descendants: Palaeontographica A (Paleozoology, Stratigraphy) and Palaeontographica B (Paleobotany).
Cox, L.R. 1969. Gasteropodes Jurassiques du Sud-Est Tunisien [Jurassic gastropods from SE Tunisia]. Annales de Paleontologie, Invertebres 55: 241-268.
Grundel, J. 2005. The genus Discohelix Dunker, 1847 (Gastropoda) and on the content of the Discohelicidae Schroder, 1995. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie-Monatshefte 12: 729-748.
Tëmkin, I., Glaubrecht, M. and Köhler, F. 2009. Wilhelm Dunker, his collection, and pteriid systematics. Malacologia 51: 39-79.
Wendt, J.1968. Discohelix (Archaeogastropoda, Euomphalacea) as an index fossil in the Tethyan Jurassic. Palaeontology 11: 554-575.