Paleontologists Find Thousands of Jurassic-Period Echinoderm Fossils

Friday, July 30, 2021

Some of the exquisitely preserved 167-million-year-old echinoderms from the Cotswolds area, England. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Over 1,000 perfectly-preserved echinoderm specimens dating back 167 million years (Jurassic period) have been excavated in a quarry in the Cotswolds area of England.

Echinoderms are a group of animals including starfish, brittle stars, feather stars, sea lilies, sea cucumbers and echinoids (sea urchins and sea potatoes or dollars).

Surprisingly, and highly unusually, species belonging to all these groups have been discovered at a quarry in the Cotswolds.

“The exceptional preservation of so many individuals belonging to diverse echinoderm groups is exceptional and makes the site comparable to the best in the world,” said Dr. Tim Ewin, senior curator at the Natural History Museum, London.

The new fossil-bearing site was discovered by two amateur paleontologists Sally and Neville Hollingworth.

“We were looking for new sites to explore once lockdown ended. We do this by scrolling through Google maps around areas we know fossils have been found,” Sally Hollingworth said.

“The site we eventually discovered, a small quarry, seemed perfect.”

“We thought we would find a few interesting specimens but never expected the site to be so special,” Neville Hollingworth added.

“As soon as we realized what we were dealing with, and the scientific importance of it, we contacted the Natural History Museum.”

The new site would have been a warm, relatively shallow sea some 167 million years ago (Jurassic period).

“It seems likely that a river was flowing into the sea nearby bringing in high levels of nutrients which attracted the large numbers of echinoderms we are finding,” Dr. Ewin said.

Many of the other species being unearthed at the site are already known to science, however, many were described over 100 years ago and based on incomplete or poorly prepared specimens.

However, three echinoderm species — a type of feather star, a brittle star and a sea cucumber — are new to science.

“Many of the specimens we have excavated are trapped in large slabs of clay in groups,” said Mark Graham, senior fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum, London.

“We now need to carefully explore these blocks to discover the most scientifically important specimens and prepare them for public display.”