Field of Science

The Age of the Perisphinctoid

During the Mesozoic era, the world's oceans were dominated by the ammonites. The coiled shells of these extinct cephalopods can be found preserved in rocks of this era around the planet, encompassing a bewildering array of species. During the latter half of the Jurassic, the most diverse ammonites were members of the superfamily Perisphinctoidea.

Likely Perisphinctes, copyright Spacebirdy.

Perisphinctoids first appear around the mid-point of the Jurassic, during what is known as the Bajocian epoch (Énay & Howarth 2019). As with other major ammonite groups, perisphinctoids are characterised by features of the folding around the edges of the septa that separate chambers of the shell. Perisphinctoids have basally five-lobed septa that differ from their ancestors in the Stephanoceratoidea in the loss of the UII lobe towards the outer edge of the whorl. The earliest perisphinctoids had more or less evolute shells (that is, later whorls did not significantly overlap the predecessors) with a rounded venter. Some later lineages would become more involute, with older whorls becoming partially hidden, and the venter might get sharper or flatter. Others would pretty much retain the original conformation to the end. The majority of perisphinctoids exhibited strong ribs on the outside of the shell, these ribs usually branching towards the outer rim of the whorl. Some forms developed further elaborations of the shells such as prominent nodules or spines.

Dimorphism was widespread in the perisphinctoids, if not universal. As with other dimorphic ammonites, populations included distinct microconches and macroconches (the majority interpretation is that macroconches were female and microconches male, but of course this is speculative). Macroconches usually had simple peristomes whereas microconches commonly had the mature shell aperture flanked by elongate lappets. The early Late Jurassic (Bathonian and Callovian) Tulitidae had a tendency in macroconches for the shell coiling to become eccentric in the outermost whorls, the peristome being distinctly skewed from the main plane of the shell.

Aspidoceras hirsutum, copyright Daderot.

Perisphinctoid faunas were often markedly provincial with many lineages being restricted to particular regions (such as the bipolar Perisphinctes or the western Eurasian Parkinsoniinae). They were mostly animals of shallower waters, perhaps foraging close to the bottom. This may go some way to explaining their high diversity but it can provide a challenge to their use in stratigraphy. Ammonites of the 'perisphinctoid' type would survive the end of the Jurassic but would fade from the fossil record not too long afterwards. Nevertheless, that would not be the end of their lineage: at the beginning of the Cretaceous, they would also spawn two derived descendants (Besnosov & Michailova 1991), the largely smooth-shelled Desmoceratoidea and the Ancyloceratoidea with four-lobed septa, that would continue to dominate the Mesozoic seas.

And while I'm on the subject of ammonites, I have another correction to make to an earlier post. However, while I was able to shift some of the blame for the correction in my last post onto my original source, in this case the blame is entirely mine. In a prior discussion of the live anatomy of ammonites, I discussed the evidence that the aptychus (a pair of calcified plates that probably functioned as an operculum) originated as a modification of the lower jaw. As such, I criticised reconstructions of ammonites that showed the aptychus articulating with the shell in the manner of a nautilus' hood. Unfortunately, I had overlooked a significant difference between ammonites and nautiluses. The coiled shell of a nautilus is exogastric—that is, when they evolved from their straight-shelled ancestors, the shell coiled upwards so the original lower edge corresponded to the outside of the whorl. However, the shell of ammonites was endogastric, with the shell coiled downwards so the original venter was on the inside (in the absence of preserved soft anatomy, we can infer this from the position of the siphuncle within the shell). This means that, even though the lower ammonite aptychus was anatomically on the opposite side of the animal from the upper nautilus hood, functionally they would have appeared in life to occupy much the same position. Entirely my mistake, and a reminder to me that describing orientation in coiled animals can be confusing.


Besnosov, N. V., & I. A. Michailova. 1991. Higher taxa of Jurassic and Cretaceous Ammonitida. Paleontological Journal 25 (4): 1–19.

Énay, R., & M. K. Howarth. 2019. Part L, revised, volume 3B, chapter 7: Systematic descriptions of the Perisphinctoidea. Treatise Online 120: 1–184.


  1. Ammonitologists have, obviously, not adopted phylogenetic nomenclature that only names clades, but have they adopted phylogenetic analysis, or are they still intuiting relationships?

    1. Phylogenetic relationships among ammonites are still largely a question of playing connect-the-dots with stratigraphy. There seems to have been a widespread skepticism about the usefulness of cladistic methods for ammonites. This is partially because of a perceived shortage of discrete characters. Homoeomorphy is also thought to be common among ammonites with representatives of distinct lineages becoming very similar in appearance. Some have argued for more extensive use of cladistic methods but they seem to still be the minority.


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