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Sea Urchin

Sea Urchin

Above: Front of the Specimen Card

Ancient sea urchins, small and spiny creatures, have existed for millennia. These echinoids first appeared in oceans 450 million years ago, where they fed on algae and sponges. Their flexible spines’ purpose was two-fold: to protect against predators and allow for the slow crawl towards the urchin’s next meal. Buried for millions of years, their fossils appear in many places where those oceans once were and have inspired human cultures for thousands of years as thunderstones from the gods, though their true origin is far older.

Above: Sea Urchin specimens taking a bath after millions of years in the desert.

This specimen is from the genus Echinolampas. It comes from Samlat Formation fossil beds near Dakhla in Southern Morocco. These deposits date to the Late Eocene epoch, roughly 35,000,000 years ago.

As pictured above, each specimen is hand-selected and comes encased in an acrylic specimen jar. The jar is housed in one of our classic, glass-topped riker display cases measuring 4 1/2" x 3 1/2". A small specimen card is also included, which serves as the certificate of authenticity.

More About Sea Urchins

"One of the most lavishly furnished bell beaker burials yet found in Europe," Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick describing an early burial site decorated with fossil sea urchins.

Above: Illustrations of Echinolampas species by Alexander Agassiz in Revision of the Echini (1874)

For thousands of years, human cultures have collected strange stones marked with natural etchings. These stones have been known by many names and purposes, thunderstones, fairy loaves, shepherds’ crowns, but their true origin is far older.

450 million years ago, the first ancient sea urchins appeared in the prehistoric seas. These strange creatures scoured the seafloor for algae and other nutrients to eat, crawling along their motile spines and “tube feet.”

Above: A modern Echinolampas specimen (Image Credit: Alexander Ziegler, Cornelius Faber, Susanne Mueller, and Thomas Bartolomaeus [Source])

These animals, known scientifically as echinoids, have survived all the way to the modern-day by fulfilling a very specific niche in their ecosystem. Their small bodies and simple nervous systems don’t require much energy, so an urchin can survive quite easily off small pieces of vegetation that float past. Their iconic spines deter most predators from attempting to eat them, meaning they don’t have to expend much energy on muscular movement either. In fact, the urchin’s main mode of travel consists of a series of fluid sacs that swell and shrink with seawater. These “tube feet” can only reach up to speeds of a few inches a day, but that’s more than enough for them to find a new source of food.

Our fascination with these creatures has a very long history. Archaeologists have uncovered 4000-year-old tombs from Ancient Egypt that contained fossilized urchins as a kind of grave good. In Bronze Age Britain, people were buried surrounded by dozens of fossils as pictured below.

In Hampshire, England there’s a church that’s stood for over 700 years on a place that was an ocean millions of years ago. The windows of this church are lined with the so-called “thunderstones,” fossilized urchins that would have been collected by 12th-century masons. Their placement in the church indicates that they held a strong significance to those that built it.

These ancient fossil collectors are quite similar to all of us, just as engrossed in the strange origins of the stones as we are today. It’s unlikely they would have known or even understood the truly ancient age of the things they wore around their neck, but archaeologists believed they may have recognized them as a sort of stone animal. Perhaps in burying them with their dead, they understood that these fossils were a remnant of a long passed creature.

When you hold them, you’ll be reminded of both the millions of years of history they contain and the legacy of humankind’s fascination with the mysteries of the Earth.

Further Reading:

McKinney, Michael L., et al. “EVOLUTION OF PALEOGENE ECHINOIDS: A GLOBAL AND REGIONAL VIEW.” Eocene-Oligocene Climatic and Biotic Evolution, edited by Donald R. Prothero and William A. Berggren, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992, pp. 349–367.

McNamara, Kenneth J. “Fossil Sea Urchins from WT-13.” A Wayside Shrine in Northern Moab: Excavations in the Wadi Ath-Thamad, edited by P. M. MICHÈLE DAVIAU and MARGREET L. STEINER, by P. M. MICHÈLE DAVIAU et al., 1st ed., Oxbow Books, Oxford; Philadelphia, 2017, pp. 220–223.

Brück, Joanna, and Andrew Meirion Jones. “Finding Objects, Making Persons: Fossils in British Early Bronze Age Burials.” Relational Identities and Other-than-Human Agency in Archaeology, edited by Eleanor Harrison-Buck and Julia A. Hendon, University Press of Colorado, Louisville, 2018, pp. 237–262. 

Agassiz, Alexander. Revison of the Echini. University Press, 1873.

Ziegler, Alexander, et al. "Systematic comparison and reconstruction of sea urchin (Echinoidea) internal anatomy: a novel approach using magnetic resonance imaging." BMC biology 6.1 (2008): 1-15.

Above: Back of the Specimen Card


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