This week’s fossil is a simple and common form in the Cincinnatian Series (Upper Ordovician) of the Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky tri-state area. We are looking above at the base of a trepostome bryozoan that encrusted the outside of an aragonite bivalve shell. The bivalve shell (probably a species of Ambonychia) dissolved away, leaving its impression in the base of the calcitic bryozoan. This fossil is from the Upper Whitewater Formation (Richmondian) in eastern Indiana near Richmond itself.
In this closer view you can see the plications (“ribs”) of the bivalve preserved in negative relief on the attachment surface of the bryozoan. Close examination shows the individual zooecia of the bryozoan exquisitely molding the bivalve topography.
This is a kind of substrate bioimmuration, a preservational mode in which a skeletal organism (the bryozoan here) overgrows another organism (with a soft body or hard skeleton), making an impression of it in its base. The overgrown organisms is rots or dissolves away, leaving the exposed mold. You can also think of it as a kind of external mold produced by a living organism (the encruster). Such “vital immuration” was first described by Vialov (1961), and it is thoroughly covered by Paul Taylor in his 1990 paper cited below.
Again, these fossils are common in the Cincinnatian, and this one is far from being the fanciest. It is the Fossil of the Week because of its very ordinary nature, yet it provides extraordinary information. The aragonitic shell the bryozoan encrusted would have been lost forever after it dissolved if this bryozoan hadn’t occupied it and built a calcitic memorial. I’ve collected now hundreds of these substrate bioimmurations, and they have been critical in many studies, from the preservation of soft-bodied sclerobionts (see Wilson et al., 1994) to the revelation of boring interiors (and thus the behavior of the borers) and skeletal sclerobiont paleoecology. I’m also convinced there are many aragonitic mollusk taxa in the Cincinnatian that are known only through this bioimmuration process. These are fascinating fossils my students and I will continue to collect and study.
Taylor, P.D. 1990. Preservation of soft-bodied and other organisms by bioimmuration—a review. Palaeontology 33: 1-17.
Vialov, O.S. 1961. Phenomena of vital immuration in nature. Dopovidi Akademi Nauk Ukrayin’ skoi RSR 11: 1510-1512.
Wilson, M.A., Palmer, T.J. and Taylor, P.D. 1994. Earliest preservation of soft-bodied fossils by epibiont bioimmuration: Upper Ordovician of Kentucky. Lethaia 27: 269-270.