It is sometimes hard to believe that exquisite fossils such as the above are sometimes very common. The above is a theca of the blastoid Pentremites godoni (DeFrance, 1819) found in the Lower Carboniferous (Mississippian) of Illinois. (Thanks to expert Colin Sumrall for the identification.) In some places these fossils can be picked up by the hundreds.
Blastoids are stemmed echinoderms that appeared first in the Ordovician and went extinct at the end of the Permian. They were most diverse and abundant in the shallow carbonate seas of the Lower Carboniferous, especially in North America. They are much beloved and studied fossils.
The basal side of the above theca shows that blastoids had a small circular stem attachment, much like their cousins the crinoids. They extended numerous feeding appendages (brachioles) from their ambulacra (the five “petals” on the upper surface and sides) for filter-feeding. The theca is made of calcitic plates that are tightly fused together, thus ensuring they survive the vicissitudes of preservation.
In this close view of the top of the theca are five holes (spiracles) surrounding a central pit (the mouth) One spiracle (in the upper right) is larger than the others. It contains the anus and is thus called an anispiracle. The spiracles are openings into the interior of the theca, which contained a complexly-folded respiratory system called the hydrospire.
Pentremites godoni has a complicated taxonomic history. The original type specimen of the species (a specimen used as the definition of the species — a Platonic ideal form!) was destroyed in the middle of the 19th Century in a museum fire. The specimen was illustrated and described (although not named) in 1808 by James Parkinson (see below).
Parkinson (1808, pl. 13) referred to this specimen as “an asterial fossil from America; probably of the nature of the encrinus.” Encrinus was a term used at the time for crinoids. Fay (1961) describes the convoluted way Parkinson’s specimen above became the type not only for the species, but also how P. godoni came to define the genus Pentremites as well. That Parkinson (1808) diagram, though, is the only image of the original specimen, and probably the first illustration of a blastoid.
Atwood, J.W. and Sumrall, C.D. 2012. Morphometric investigation of the Pentremites fauna from the Glen Dean Formation, Kentucky. Journal of Paleontology 86: 813-828.
DeFrance, J.M.L. 1819. Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles 14, EA-EQE, p. 467.
Fay, R.O. 1961. The type of Pentremites Say. Journal of Paleontology 35: 868-873.
Parkinson, J. 1808. Organic remains of a former world. London, Noraville & Fell, v. 2, p. 235-236, pl. 13.
Waters, J.A., Horowitz, A.S. and Macurda, D.B., Jr. 1985. Ontogeny and phylogeny of the Carboniferous blastoid Pentremites. Journal of Paleontology 59: 701-712.