Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A cheilostome bryozoan and serpulid worm bryolith from the Recent of Massachusetts

Cheilostome Serpulid Muffin TopA bryolith is a mobile, unattached mass of bryozoans. Cheilostome bryozoans are especially good at forming bryoliths because of their hardy skeletons and relatively rapid rates of growth. The above specimen is a bryolith collected by my good friend Al Curran in March 2008 from Duck Creek in Cape Cod Bay near Wellfleet, Massachusetts. It is a modern specimen, so not actually a fossil, but I present it here because these objects have a good fossil record. The bottom view of the bryolith is below.
Cheilostome Serpulid Muffin ReverseThe tubes twisting about in this mass are those of polychaete serpulids. These are filter-feeding “tubeworms” common on marine shells, hardgrounds and rocks since the Triassic. We’ve met them many times in this blog. They are frustrating to identify from the tube alone because the soft anatomy (especially the genitalia, if you can imagine them) are needed to sort out most taxa. They tend to live on the undersides and cryptic spaces of hard substrates, which you can see when comparing the top and bottom of the above specimen.
Cheilostome Serpulid Muffin closerWith this closer look (above) we can see the fabric of the bryozoan skeleton (the zoarium). Individual zooecia (the skeletal tubes of the living zooids) are coming into focus. It appears from the intergrown nature of the serpulid tubes and bryozoan that these two groups were living together at the same time.
Cheilostome Serpulid Muffin closer yetIn this even closer view we see a serpulid tube embedded in a matrix of cheilostome zooecia. The apertures of the zooecia are now visible, and a bit of the frontal walls.
Cheilostome Serpulid Muffin closestThis is the closest I could get with our camera equipment. The frontal walls and apertures of the zooecia are easily seen. In life each aperture would have had a little door (an operculum). The frontal walls are a beautiful lattice-work of calcite.

I hesitate to suggest an identification for this cheilostome bryozoan because one of the world’s experts, my English good friend Paul Taylor, reads this blog. Nevertheless, I think these are of the widespread genus Schizoporella. Paul will correct me quickly if I’m wrong!


Kidwell, S.M. and Gyllenhall, E.D. 1998. Symbiosis, competition, and physical disturbance in the growth histories of Pliocene cheilostome bryoliths. Lethaia 31: 221-239.

Klicpera, A., Taylor, P.D. and Westphal, H. 2013. Bryoliths constructed by bryozoans in symbiotic associations with hermit crabs in a tropical heterozoan carbonate system, Golfe d’Arguin, Mauritania. Marine Biodiversity: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12526-013-0173-4 .

About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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6 Responses to Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A cheilostome bryozoan and serpulid worm bryolith from the Recent of Massachusetts

  1. Paul Taylor says:

    Mark, you’ve nailed it, this is indeed Schizoporella, possibly Schizoporella errata.

  2. Mark Wilson says:

    Thanks, Paul. I’m so proud of myself right now.

  3. Donna Pastelak says:

    My brother has a clustered fossil of serpulid worm tubes that he found when he was seven years old in the year of 1939. He was exploring on the White Rocks of Deadwood, SD where we lived then and he found this specimen. We were told that it is serpulid worm marine tubes. I wondered if it was possible that in some period that there was a sea in South Dakota then and you could perhaps inform me of that period?

  4. Mark Wilson says:

    Hello Donna: You can email me a photo of the specimen (mwilson@wooster.edu) and I can give you some information. Likely Cretaceous. Thanks for asking!

  5. Ashlee Keiper-Kintz says:

    I’ve been trying to identify some odd formations that I’ve found on the beach on Cape Hatteras National seashore, and so far the closest thing I can find seems to be superimposed bryozoan colony layers. I’m wondering how a layman would differentiate between modern encrusting bryozoan specimens and fossils? Some of them have coquina/matrix on them, but some seem “fresh.”

  6. Mark Wilson says:

    Hi Ashlee. Distinguishing recent from fossil bryozoans on the shore can be difficult. Sometimes you get lucky and recent bryozoans will have opercula (“doors”) still in place. You can email me photos if you like at mwilson-at-wooster-dot-edu.

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