The call of the ancient sea lillies

The first time I ever went fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset was with my Dad and my two little boys.  It was a cold winter’s day after a week of storms that had churned over the beach and toppled the cliffs.  We came with little expectation of finding any relics but were just excited by the anticipation that we might, given the other worldliness of the cliffs and the imposing Black Ven mud slides, the largest in Europe that deliver millions of fossils and new discoveries to science onto the beach every year.

Now twenty something years have passed, and I am a frequent visitor to this odd, but strangely compelling coastline.  You never know what you will find here; there is always something interesting to pick up, something that captures your imaginings of an ancient place.

Last Saturday was the first time I had ventured to the coast since the Covid-19 lockdown.  Somewhat aghast by the volume of people at my favourite fossil site, I strode past the hordes beyond the latest fall and towards an empty shore.  Here I spent a sunny day, eyes down on the outgoing tide looking for the treasures that are washed clean by the waves.  The usual belemnites and ammonites were the first to catch my attention but, by far, the best find of the day was a perfect crinoid stem, a sea lily, unseen and untouched by human hands lying between the rocks waiting for my discovery.

Quite often the ends of a crinoid stem are worn by time and water, but this one is perfect, depicting the fine markings of a daisy pattern; symmetrical and mathematical in its design and precision.  Its life and beauty forever cast in stone.

Crinoidea first appeared in the seas of the Middle Cambrian, 300 million years before the dinosaurs.  Although plant like in appearance, they are actually marine animals; over 600 species of them still exist in our oceans today. They belong to a group that include brittle stars, starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

The stems of crinoids consist of disc-like plates (columnals) that appear neatly stacked one on top of the other.  I have found them before but never as perfect as this one.

After years of beach combing and nature watching, I am always struck by the serendipity of a find; of being in the right place at the right time.  As we pass through this world, mere dots in the scheme of things, we happen across such extraordinary natural wonders.  The closer we look the more there is to see.