Fossil folklore: Echinoderms

Dr Paul D Taylor (UK) The distinct five-fold – or pentameral – symmetry of echinoderms makes them particularly striking fossils. Some even have a vaguely mystical appearance. Modern echinoderms – starfish (asteroids), sea urchins (echinoids), feather stars and sea lilies (crinoids), sea cucumbers (holothurians) and brittle stars (ophiuroids) – are all animals of the oceans. As no echinoderms inhabit freshwater environments, it is difficult to envisage what ancient people living far distant from the coast and who had never visited the sea might have thought when finding a fossil echinoderm with peculiar star-like marks on its surface. How could such a stone have been formed? What was its significance? Did the star markings point to a heavenly origin? Could the stone possess magical or mystical properties? Even today, many folklore beliefs about echinoderms persist. For example, the echinoid, Eurhodia matleyi, is found in west-central Jamaica around Stettin, where it can be abundant on bedding planes of the Eocene Yellow Limestone Group. These fossils are locally referred to as ‘lucky stones’, because of the distinctive star-shaped pattern of the ambulacra (SK Donovan, pers. comm, July 2003). Fossil echinoderms must have seemed worthy of collecting and treasuring regardless of how they were viewed. Indeed, some were even worn as amulets to protect against evil. Not surprisingly, echinoderms have a folklore that is matched only by that of ammonites (see Fossil folklore: Ammonites). Pre- and unscientific beliefs about various kinds of fossil echinoderms abound and a plethora of folklore names have been given … Read More

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