One of my formative experiences as a young paleontologist was working in the Faringdon Sponge Gravels (Lower Cretaceous, Upper Aptian) of south-central England while on my first research leave in 1985. (I was just a kid!) These gravels are extraordinarily fossiliferous with sponges, brachiopods, corals, vertebrate bones, and a variety of cobbles, both calcareous and siliceous. These coarse sediments were deposited in narrow channels dominated by tidal currents with significant energy reworking and sorting the fossil and rock debris. Above is a cobble of very hard vein quartz from the Sponge Gravels. On the left end you see an encrusting bryozoan with an unusual morphology.
The fossils of the Faringdon Sponge Gravels have been studied for a very long time. The first formal notice of them is a museum catalogue compiled by Edward Lhwyd (image above) and published in 1699. Lhwyd (1660-1709) was a Welsh natural philosopher better known by his Latinized name Eduardus Luidus. He had an unfortunate childhood being the illegitimate son of what has been reported as a “dissolute and impractical” (and poor) father. Still, he was better off than most and had schooling all the way up to Oxford (but he could not afford to graduate). In 1684 he became an assistant to Robert Plot, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He became a great scientific traveler and collector, specializing in plants and fossils and (eventually) ancient languages of Britain. In 1691 he was appointed Keeper at the Ashmolean. His book detailing fossils of Britain (Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia) was published with financial assistant from his good friend Isaac Newton.
This is plate 18 from Lhwyd (1699). The fossil in the upper right is the sponge Corynella from the Faringdon Sponge Gravels.
Lhwyd’s views on the origin of fossils are with describing. This is a summary from Edmonds (1973, p. 307-308):
He suggested a sequence in which mists and vapours over the sea were impregnated with the ‘seed’ of marine animals. These were raised and carried for considerable distances before they descended over land in rain and fog. The ‘invisible animacula’ then penetrated deep into the earth and there germinated; and in this way complete replicas of sea organisms, or sometimes only parts of individuals, were reproduced in stone. Lhwyd also suggests that fossil plants known to him only as resembling leaves of ferns and mosses which have minute ‘seed’, were formed in the same manner. He claimed that this theory explained a number of features about fossils in a satisfactory manner: the presence in England of nautiluses and exotic shells which were no longer found in neighbouring seas; the absence of birds and viviparous animals not found by Lhwyd as fossils; the varying and often quite large size of the forms, not usual in present oceans; and the variation in preservation from perfect replica to vague representation, which was thought to represent degeneration with time.
What is most interesting about these ideas is that they have no reference to Noah’s Flood or other divine interventions.
In 1708, Lhwyd was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1708. He didn’t enjoy this privilege long for he died of pleurisy the next year at age 49.
Now back to the bryozoan on the Faringdon cobble. It is the cyclostome Reptoclausa hagenowi (Sharpe, 1854). It has an odd form of irregularly radiating ridges of feeding zooids (autozooids) separated from each other by structural zooids (kenozooids). I like to think (although I have no evidence) that this morphology was resistant to abrasion in the rough-and-tumble life of living on a cobble in a high-energy channel. There are few other encrusters on the outer surfaces of the Faringdon cobbles.
The next two Fossils of the Week will also be from the fascinating Faringdon Sponge Gravels.
Edmonds, J.M. 1973. Lhwyd, Edward, p. 307-308. In: Gillespie, C.C. (ed.). Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 8. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 620 pp.
Lhwyd, E. 1699. Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia. London, 139 pages.
Meyer, C.J.A. 1864. I. Notes on Brachiopoda from the Pebble-bed of the Lower Greensand of Surrey; with Descriptions of the New Species, and Remarks on the Correlation of the Greensand Beds of Kent, Surrey, and Berks, and of the Farringdon Sponge-gravel and the Tourtia of Belgium. Geological Magazine 1(06): 249-257.
Pitt L.J. and Taylor P.D. 1990. Cretaceous Bryozoa from the Faringdon Sponge Gravel (Aptian) of Oxfordshire. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology Series, 46: 61–152.
Wells, M.R., Allison, P.A., Piggott, M.D., Hampson, G.J., Pain, C.C. and Gorman, G.J. 2010. Tidal modeling of an ancient tide-dominated seaway, part 2: the Aptian Lower Greensand Seaway of Northwest Europe. Journal of Sedimentary Research 80: 411-439.
Wilson, M.A. 1986. Coelobites and spatial refuges in a Lower Cretaceous cobble-dwelling hardground fauna. Palaeontology 29: 691-703.