Friday, 7 August 2020


This gorgeous Lower Pliensbachian macroconch of the ammonite Androgynoceras lataecosta was found as a nodule from the Green Ammonite beds, Lower Pliensbachian, Stonebarrow Marl Member, Charmouth Mudstone Formation (190 MYA) at Charmouth Beach, Dorset Coast. 

This specimen was found, prepped and photographed by the lovely and talented Lizzie Hingley of Stonebarrow Fossils. 

And what a delightful surprise! It is quite a small nodule to contain a macroconch of this species. Generally, these smaller concretions contain the diminutive male microconchs of Androgynoceras (Hyatt, 1867) if you are lucky — sometimes a Tragophylloceras loscombi (Sowerby, 1814) — or nothing at all if you are not. 

We see a great variation in this species and the ammonite species that make up this population. Murray Edmunds from Chipping Norton, UK shared some of his insights on why we see such variation and how a phylogenetic species concept may be masking a continuum that tells a very different story.  

We are starting to recognise that these could all be variants of one interbreeding population — with a highly variable duration of a juvenile Capricorn stage. Palaeontologists use a phylogenetic species concept as you cannot test reproductive isolation in any but the most recent of fossils.

By definition, individuals within an interbreeding population cannot belong to different species, let alone different genera. In palaeontology we can only interpret what we see with reference to what we understand of biology. 

In the Davoei Zone Liparoceratidae we have a single lineage that evolves into Oistoceras. The microconchs (putative males) are small Capricorns, and the macroconchs (putative females) are very variable: they have a Capricorn juvenile stage that can be expressed for only a few mm (or not at all), or for many cm. But eventually, the adult macroconch body chamber acquires liparoceratid ornament — inflated and bipinnate with numerous secondary ribs. 

Unfortunately, the green ammonite beds at Charmouth preserve only juvenile macroconchs so we don’t get to appreciate the similarity of the mature adult shell form. We see them at a size where individuals can look very different from each other. 

Historically, this difference in appearance led to all the individuals — both micro and macroconchs — with prolonged Capricorn morphology being assigned to Androgynoceras and those macroconchs lacking the juvenile Capricorn stage (as is typical in their Ibex zone ancestors) to be called Liparoceras

Different species were named for different variants. But this is a purely morphological approach to nomenclature and does not reflect the taxonomy used for extant organisms where we try to reflect phylogeny.

But as more and more examples are collected, we start to see that these specimens form a continuum. And as we follow them up through time, we see that all of them (microconchs and macroconchs, regardless of the extent of the Capricorn stage — although that tends to become more prolonged through time — simultaneously evolve progressively forwardly projected ribs across the venter, culminating in Oistoceras. 

This simultaneous evolutionary change across the entire Liparoceratid population more or less proves that we have a single interbreeding clade. And that it is separate from Becheiceras – through that’s another story! And they all go extinct simultaneously too, whereas Becheiceras carries on into the Margaritatus Zone. If you're a grad student looking to do your thesis, there is a very interesting story you could tell!

If you fancy a web stroll through some beautifully prepped specimens from Jurassic Coast, UK, or if you'd like to get some prepped, you can check out Lizzie's superb skill here:  / Photos: Lizzie Hingley, Stonebarrow Fossils