Field of Science

Taxocrinus

Below is an example of Taxocrinus, a genus of fossil crinoids known from the later Devonian and earlier Carboniferous of Europe and North America. It is a relatively plesiomorphic representative of the flexible crinoids, one of the major crinoid lineages of the Palaeozoic era.

Taxocrinus colletti, copyright James St. John.


Flexible crinoids are characterised by arms that lack pinnules, the small side-branches found on the arms of most other crinoids. As a result, the preserved arms have a somewhat tentacle-like appearance, and are commonly preserved coiled in over the oral surface of the central cup. In Taxocrinus, the arms were regularly and isotomously bifurcated: that is, they divided between two branches of more or less equal size. The central cup itself in flexible crinoids was (somewhat counter-intuitively) quite inflexible, with the plates of the aboral surface firmly jointed together. The oral surface bore a more flexible covering of small plates, and an anal tube (visible near the midline of the fossil above) directed waste away from the mouth. The stem was round in cross section and lacked lateral cirri (Moore 1978).

Flexible crinoids were around for a very long time but it is rare for them to be found in abundance. As such, they were probably specialised for particular habitats that were either uncommon or less likely to be preserved. It has been suggested that, because their pinnule-less arms would have been poorly suited for filtering particles from strong currents, flexible crinoids may have inhabited calm, low-energy waters (Breimer 1978) (though I do wonder if enlarged tube feet may have partially filled the role of pinnules; is it possible to estimate the size of the tube feet from the preserved skeleton?) Crinoids living in such habitats will often hold the arms in a bowl arrangement so they may capture particles settling from higher in the water column. In the case of the flexible crinoids, moving the arms in and out may have created local water movements to further draw such particles in.

Though Taxocrinus itself would disappear in the mid-Carboniferous, flexible crinoids as a whole would persist to the end of the Permian. In more derived forms, the branching of the arms was often unequal, with the smaller branches effectively replacing the missing pinnules. In the end, though, the specialised flexibles were yet another casualty of the end-Permian cataclysm that so shook the composition of life on this planet.

REFERENCES

Breimer, A. 1978. Autecology. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2 vol. 1 pp. T331–T343. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

Moore, R. C. 1978. Flexibilia. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2 vol. 2 pp. T759–T812. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

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