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460-million-year-old relatives from Wales and Belgium reunited

Didymograptus, a 'tuning-fork' graptolite of the kind found commonly in both areas.
Didymograptus, a 'tuning-fork' graptolite of the kind found commonly in both areas.
Pricyclopyge, a large-eyed pelagic trilobite
Pricyclopyge, a large-eyed pelagic trilobite that is widespread in Britain and northwest Europe.
Headshield of Ormathops,
Headshield of Ormathops, a benthic trilobite endemic to Bohemia.

Llanvirn Farm, Abereiddy, Pembrokeshire

In the late 19th century, Henry Hicks, a surgeon from St David's, took up an interest in the ancient rocks of north Pembrokeshire. In 1881, he named the rocks at Abereiddi Bay the "Llanvirn Group", after a nearby farm. Today, this name is internationally recognized and is found in geological publications all over the world - fame indeed for a small farm on the windswept Pembrokeshire coast.

Staff at Amgueddfa Cymru have been studying Llanvirn rocks and their fossils for over thirty years. In 2000, Dr R Owens of the Department of Geology was invited to examine fossils from rocks of the Llanvirn Series that are exposed in the Meuse valley in Belgium. Trilobite species found in these rocks were compared to those from the British Isles.

Identical fossils from Wales and Belgium

Fossils in Llanvirn rocks tend to be difficult to find without a good deal of time and effort. The graptolites and trilobites discovered in Belgium are all identical with those found in Wales and the Lake District. The Llanvirn rocks in which the fossils occur are understood to have been laid down in the deep ocean.

During the Ordovician period when Llanvirn rocks were deposited, southern Britain, Belgium and northern Germany were all part of a small continent named Avalonia, separated from the vast continent of Gondwana by the Rheic Ocean.

Blind trilobites

Trilobites that are thought to have lived only on the sea floor (benthic species) tend to be confined to specific areas, but those thought to have swam the ocean waters (pelagic species) are widely distributed. One of the trilobite species found in Belgium has enormous eyes and is thought to be pelagic. This fossil is common in many areas. By contrast, another one, described originally by Hicks from Abereiddi, is blind, and is thought to have been benthic. However, it also has a wide distribution, which in this case is more difficult to explain. It could have spent a long time as a small larva, allowing it to drift around and causing a wider distribution of the fossils; alternatively it might have been pelagic, living in and around floating masses of seaweed.

Ordovician rocks that are younger than those of the Llanvirn Series also crop out in the Meuse valley and these contain trilobite species that are also found in north Wales and northern England. These show that throughout the Ordovician Period, Belgium remained part of Avalonia. However, rocks that occur between these and the earlier Llanvirn rocks contain trilobites unlike those from Britain, but which closely resemble fossils from Bohemia. It is unlikely that part of Avalonia split away, moved closer to Bohemia and then merged back again. So why the similarity of these trilobites to those of Bohemia?

The answer could lie in the underwater environment becoming more similar to that of Bohemia than to southern Britain. Although the relative longitudes of Bohemia and Avalonia are unknown, the distance separating the two areas must have been sufficiently close to allow the trilobite larvae to cross between the two and become widely distributed.

The outcome of this work has been to confirm close fossil links across parts of Pembrokeshire and Belgium 460 million years ago, but also to highlight problems of fossil distribution that have yet to be fully resolved.

Article Date: 26 July 2007

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