Wednesday, 23 September 2020


Early Cretaceous Hoplites sp. Dorset, UK
Ammonites were predatory, squid-like creatures that lived inside coil-shaped shells. 

Like other cephalopods, ammonites had sharp, beak-like jaws inside a ring of tentacles that extended from their shells to snare prey such as small fish and crustaceans. Some ammonites grew more than three feet (one meter) across — possible snack food for the giant mosasaur Tylosaurus.

These sea creatures were constantly building new shell as they grew. Most ammonites have coiled shells. The chambered part of the shell is called a phragmocone.  It contains a series of progressively layered chambers called camerae, which were divided by thin walls called septae. The last chamber is the body chamber. Most of the shell was unused as they preferred to inhabit only the outer chamber. 

As the ammonite grew, it added new and larger chambers to the opened end of the shell. A thin living tube called a siphuncle passed through the septa, extending from the body to the empty shell chambers.

This allowed the ammonite to empty the water out of the shell chambers by hyperosmotic active transport process. This process controlled the buoyancy of the ammonite's shell. They scooted through the warm, shallow seas by squirting jets of water from their bodies. 

A thin, tubelike structure called a siphuncle reached into the interior chambers to pump and siphon air and helped them move through the water.

They first appeared about 240 million years ago, though they descended from straight-shelled cephalopods called bacrites that date all the way back to the Devonian — some 415 million years. 

They were prolific breeders, lived in schools, and are among the most abundant fossils found today. They went extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Scientists use the various shapes and sizes of ammonite shells that appeared and disappeared through the ages to date other fossils.

During their evolution, three catastrophic events occurred. The first during the Permian period (250million years ago), only 10% survived.  They went on to flourish throughout the Triassic period, but at the end of this period (206 million years ago), all but one species died. Then they began to thrive from the Jurassic period until the end of the Cretaceous period when all species of ammonites became extinct.

Ammonites began life very tiny, less than 1mm in diameter, and were vulnerable to attack from predators. They fed on plankton and quickly assumed a strong protective outer shell. They also grew quickly with the females growing up to 400% larger than the males; because they needed the larger shell for egg production. Most ammonites only lived for two years.  Some lived longer becoming very large. The largest ever found was in Germany (6.5 feet in diameter).

Ammonites lived in shallow waters of 100 meters or less. They moved through the water by jet propulsion expelling water through a funnel-like opening to propel themselves in the opposite direction. They were predators (cephalopods) feeding on most living marine life including molluscs, fish even other cephalopods. Ammonites would silently stalk their prey then quickly extend their tentacles to grab it.  When caught the prey would be devoured by the Ammonites' jaws located at the base of the tentacles between the eyes.

Photo One: Hoplites sp. from the Early Cretaceous of Dorset, UK. Natural Selection Fossils

Photo Two: Hoplites dentalus from Albian deposits near Troyes, France. Collection of Stéphane Rolland.

Wright, C. W. (1996). Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, Part L, Mollusca 4: Cretaceous Ammonoidea (with contributions by JH Calloman (sic) and MK Howarth). Geological Survey of America and University of Kansas, Boulder, Colorado, and Lawrence, Kansas, 362.

Amédro, F., Matrion, B., Magniez-Jannin, F., & Touch, R. (2014). La limite Albien inférieur-Albien moyen dans l’Albien type de l’Aube (France): ammonites, foraminifères, séquences. Revue de Paléobiologie, 33(1), 159-279.