Ammonites were predatory, squidlike creatures that lived inside coil-shaped shells. Like other cephalopods, ammonites had sharp, beak-like jaws inside a ring of squid-like tentacles that extended from their shells. They used these tentacles to snare prey — plankton, vegetation, fish and crustaceans — similar to the way a squid or octopus hunt today.
Catching a fish with your hands is no easy feat, as I'm sure you know. Ammonites did the equivalent, catching prey in their tentacles. They were skilled and successful hunters. They caught their prey while swimming and floating in the water column. Within their shells, they had a number of chambers, called septa, filled with gas or fluid that were interconnected by a wee air tube. By pushing air in or out, they were able to control their buoyancy in the water column.
They lived in the last chamber of their shells, continuously building new shell material as they grew. As each new chamber was added, the squid-like body of the ammonite would move down to occupy the final outside chamber.
They were a group of extinct marine mollusc animals in the subclass Ammonoidea of the class Cephalopoda. These molluscs, commonly referred to as ammonites, are more closely related to living coleoids — octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish) then they are to shelled nautiloids such as the living Nautilus species.
Ammonites first appeared about 240 million years ago, though they descended from straight-shelled cephalopods called bacrites that date back to the Devonian, about 415 million years ago, and the last species vanished in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.
They were prolific breeders that evolved rapidly. If you could cast a fishing line into our ancient seas, it is likely that you would hook an ammonite, not a fish. They were prolific back in the day, living (and sometimes dying) in schools in oceans around the globe. We find ammonite fossils (and plenty of them) in sedimentary rock from all over the world.
In some cases, we find rock beds where we can see evidence of a new species that evolved, lived and died out in such a short time span that we can walk through time, following the course of evolution using ammonites as a window into the past.
For this reason, they make excellent index fossils. An index fossil is a species that allows us to link a particular rock formation, layered in time with a particular species or genus found there. Generally, deeper is older, so we use the sedimentary layers rock to match up to specific geologic time periods, rather the way we use tree-rings to date trees. A handy way to compare fossils and date strata across the globe.