Fossil of the month: Asterosoma

Asterosoma

What is this strange shape? Some people find this fossil and think it may be a fossil starfish. Actually, it’s a type of trace fossil (also called ichnofossil), formed by a soft-bodied organism moving through the sediment. Trace fossils like Asterosoma are important for interpreting the original environmental conditions in rock strata where body fossils (fossils of actual organisms with hard parts like shells) are lacking.

Description. Asterosoma is a three-dimensional trace fossil. It has multiple, radiating lateral arms (tubes) around a central bulging axis. The arms and central axis are burrows of a soft-bodied invertebrate (lacking a backbone) organism, rather than the body parts of an organism. Individual lateral burrows can be several inches long and generally less than an inch wide. They tend to be widest in the middle, thin toward the central axis, and thin towards slightly rounded ends. Lateral burrows commonly are covered with longitudinal (parallel to long axis) wrinkles. Some Mesozoic-age forms have branching lateral arms. When Asterosoma is viewed from the side, each lateral burrow looks like a semi-circular tube filled with sandstone, siltstone, and sometimes minor mudstone or claystone. Lateral burrows may be concentrically or irregularly laminated (called spreite) or they may be massive and unlayered (Chamberlain, 1971; Häntzschel, 1975; Miller and Knox, 1985). When viewed from the side, Asterosoma’s lateral burrows can look very similar to another type of trace fossil, called Teichichnus. Teichichnus is sometimes described as looking like small, stacked gutters.

Bottom and side views of Asterosoma from the Grundy Formation in Rockcastle County
Bottom and side views of Asterosoma from the Grundy Formation in Rockcastle County, eastern Kentucky. Specimen from the Kentucky Geological Survey’s paleontological collection.

When you see a bedding surface with an Asterosoma on it, you are looking at the underside or base of a bed. Usually, the trace fossil is in a sandstone bed and the radiating lateral burrows are along the contact of the sandstone with a shale bed or an interlaminated sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, and shale interval. The relative geometry or position in a bed of this kind of trace fossil is called a convex hyporelief or hypichnia.

Asterosoma (white arrows) in sandy rock layers interlaminated with thin shale and mudstone. In outcrop, the radiating pattern of this trace is not as obvious as when seen along bedding planes.
Asterosoma (white arrows) in sandy rock layers interlaminated with thin shale and mudstone. In outcrop, the radiating pattern of this trace is not as obvious as when seen along bedding planes.

Species. Asterosoma is a trace fossil, rather than a specific animal or plant fossil. It is given a genera name as a distinctive pattern or trace. Different species names have been given to different variations of the Asterosoma pattern, although many researchers do not use a species name with trace fossils. The common form found in Kentucky with distinct, non-branching arms, has been called Asterosoma radiciforme (Chamberlain, 1971; Martino, 1989). Other names are given to branching forms, which are more common in Mesozoic strata (Seilacher, 2007).

Another example of Asterosoma from eastern Kentucky in the Kentucky Geological Survey’s paleontological collections. Note the stacking of radial burrows in side view.
Another example of Asterosoma from eastern Kentucky in the Kentucky Geological Survey’s paleontological collections. Note the stacking of radial burrows in side view.

Asterosoma vs. starfish and starfish traces. Some people think Asterosoma looks like a starfish, sea star, brittle star or related asterozoan fossil. When Asterosoma has five radiating burrows or tubes, it is easy to understand how at first glance, it could be confused with a starfish or starfish resting trace. Starfish usually have five arms (although some have more). More importantly, each arm is similar in appearance to each other, and each arm is symmetrically spaced (similar distance between arms) around a central axis. Asterosoma, however, commonly has more than five arms; arms are not equal in size; and arms are not equally spaced from each other.

Asterosoma is not the trace of a starfish or related asterozoan. Traces of starfish and their cousins are called Asteriacites. This example of Asteriacites is from the Fentress Formation in northern Tennessee. It is 12 cm in diameter.
Asterosoma is not the trace of a starfish or related asterozoan. Traces of starfish and their cousins are called Asteriacites. This example of Asteriacites is from the Fentress Formation in northern Tennessee. It is 12 cm in diameter.

Actual starfish and asterozoan trace fossils are preserved and are called Asteriacites. Asteriacites trace fossils are usually resting impressions of a starfish or brittle star (e.g., Seilacher, 2007). Asteriacites are relatively rare, but have been found in the Mississippian Borden Formation of eastern Kentucky (Chaplin, 1980) and the Pennsylvanian Fentress Formation of neighboring Tennessee (Miller and Knox, 1985).

Starfish and other asterozoan body fossils are also preserved as fossils, although they are rare. Body fossils preserve details of body structure, rather than just the outline of the body. The upper surface of a starfish or brittle star fossils exhibit arrangements of tiny plates on their arms. The underside of arms have a central groove (called the ambulacral groove), body plates, and the opening for the mouth.

Range. Asterosoma are long ranging. They occur in rock strata from the Precambrian to Recent (Crimes, 1975; Ekdale and others, 1984). In Kentucky, they are mostly found in interbedded sandstones and shales of Pennsylvanian age. Asterosoma is relatively common in the Tradewater Formation of western Kentucky, and the Grundy Formation of eastern Kentucky (Greb and Chesnut, 1992; Greb and others, 1992; Martino and Sanderson, 1993; Greb and Chesnut, 1994). These units are 310 to 320 million years old. Asterosoma has also been reported from Pennsylvanian strata in many surrounding states including West Virginia (Martino, 1989; 1996), Tennessee (Miller and Knox, 1985), Ohio (Chamberlain, 1978a), Indiana (Archer and others, 1994), and Illinois (Devera, 1989; Devera and others, 1990).

Asterosoma fragments from the Grundy Formation in eastern Kentucky.
Asterosoma fragments from the Grundy Formation in eastern Kentucky.

Trace makers and paleoecology. Asterosoma are the traces of a soft-bodied organism. Most researchers have inferred the trace makers for Paleozoic Asterosoma were marine worms (polychaetes) or worm-like organisms (e.g., Chamberlain, 1971; Martino, 1989; Miller and Knox, 1989); shrimp (Seilacher, 2007); and for branching Mesozoic forms, small, decapod arthropods (Neto de Carvalho and Rodrigues, 2007). The layering or “spreite” found in some many lateral Asterosoma burrows were formed by the soft-bodied organism moving through the sediment, pressing sediment against the walls and backfilling the burrows as it probed the sediment interface between beds (Seilacher, 2007). Different patterns (and species) of Asterosoma are formed by different movements of the trace makers.

Asterosoma from the Grundy Formation in eastern Kentucky showing details of spreite in lateral burrow fills.
Asterosoma from the Grundy Formation in eastern Kentucky showing details of spreite in lateral burrow fills.

Asterosoma are commonly found in beds that lack shelly fossils of organisms but are fairly well bioturbated. Bioturbation is the disturbance of sediment by organisms (burrows, tracks, trails, etc.). Other trace fossils commonly found with Asterosomain Kentucky include Arenicolites, Asterophycus, Conostichus, Monocraterion, Rosselia, and Teichichnus. This association of traces is usually placed in the Cruziana ichnofacies (e.g., Ekdale and others, 1984; MacEachern and others, 2007). Ichnofacies are a characteristic grouping of trace fossils, which form in a certain range of shallow marine environmental (salinity, energy, etc.) conditions. In fact, traces like Asterosoma help geologists interpret the original depositional conditions of the beds in which they occur, based on comparisons of ichnofacies to modern environments of deposition. Cruziana trace fossil assemblages are characteristic of modern shallow marine (typically shoreface) and coastal environments (Chamberlain, 1978a; Miller and Knox, 1985; Pollard, 1988; Greb and Chesnut, 1992, 1994; Martino, 1996; MacEachern and others, 2007).

Learn more about bioturbation and trace fossils

References Cited

  • Archer, A.W., Feldman, H.R., Kvale, E.P. and Lanier, W.P., 1994, Comparison of drier-to wetter-interval estuarine roof facies in the Eastern and Western Interior coal basins, USA: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 106, p. 171-185.

  • Chamberlain, C.K., 1971, Morphology and ethology of trace fossils from the Ouachita Mountains, southeastern Oklahoma: Journal of Paleontology, v. 45, p. 212-246.

  • Chamberlain, C. K. 1978a, Recognition of trace fossils in cores, in Basan, P.B., ed., Trace Fossil Concepts: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Short Course Notes, no. 5, p. 133-184.

  • Chamberlain, C.K., 1978b, A Guidebook to the trace fossils and paleoecology of the Ouachita Geosyncline: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 68 p.

  • Chaplin, J.R., 1980, Stratigraphy, trace fossil associations, and depositional environments in the Borden Formation (Mississippian), northeastern Kentucky (Geological Society of Kentucky 1980 field conference): Kentucky Geological Survey, 114 p.

  • Crimes, T.P., 1975, The stratigraphical significance of trace fossils, in Frey, R.W., ed., The study of trace fossils: Springer-Verlag, New York, p. 109-130.

  • Devera, J.A., 1989, Ichnofossil assemblages and associated lithofacies of the Lower Pennsylvanian Caseyville and Tradewater Formations, southern Illinois, in p.57 83.

  • Devera, J.A., Reinertsen, D.L. and Whitaker, S.T., 1990, Guide to the geology of the Ferne Clyffe area: Johnson, Pope, Saline and Union Counties. Illinois State Geological Survey, Field trip guidebook 1990A.

  • Ekdale, A.A., Bromley, R.G., and Pemberton, S.G., 1984, Ichnology - The use of trace fossils in sedimentology and stratigraphy: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 317 p.

  • Greb, S.F. and Chesnut, D.R., 1994, Paleoecology of an estuarine sequence in the Breathitt Formation (Pennsylvanian), central Appalachian Basin: Palaios, v. 9, no. 4, p. 388-402.

  • Greb, S.F. and Chesnut Jr, D.R., 1992, Transgressive channel filling in the Breathitt Formation (Upper Carboniferous), eastern Kentucky coal field, USA: Sedimentary Geology, v. 75, no.3-4, p.209-221.

  • Greb, S.F., Chesnut, D.R., Jr., and Eble, C.F., 1992, Coastal and terrestrial environments of the lower Breathitt and Lee Formations (lower Middle Pennsylvanian), near Frenchburg, Kentucky, in Cecil, C.B., and Eble, C.F., eds., Paleoclimate controls on Carboniferous sedimentation and cyclic stratigraphy in the Appalachian Basin, p. 90-97.

  • Häntszchel, W., 1975, Trace fossils and problematica: Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology-Part W., Miscellanea, 245 p.

  • MacEachern, J.A., Bann, K.L., Pemberton, S.G., and Gingras, K., 2007, The ichnofacies paradigm: High-resolution paleoenvironmental interpretation of the rock record, in MacEachern, J.A., Bann, K.L., Gingras, K., and Pemberton, S.G., eds., Applied ichnology: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Short Course Notes, no. 52, p. 27-64.

  • Martino, R.L., 1989, Trace fossils from marginal marine facies of the Kanawha Formation (Middle Pennsylvanian), West Virginia: Journal of Paleontology, v. 63, no. 4, p. 389-403.

  • Martino, R.L., 1996, Stratigraphy and depositional environments of the Kanawha Formation (middle Pennsylvanian), southern West Virginia, USA: International Journal of Coal Geology, v. 31, no. 1-4, p. 217-248.

  • Martino, R.L. and Sanderson, D.D., 1993, Fourier and autocorrelation analysis of estuarine tidal rhythmites, lower Breathitt Formation (Pennsylvanian), eastern Kentucky, USA: Journal of Sedimentary Research, v. 63, no. 1, p. 105-119.

  • Miller, M.F., and Knox, L.W., 1985, Biogenic structures and de- positional environments of a Lower Pennsylvanian coal-bearing sequence, northern Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee, U.S.A., in Curran, H.E., ed., Biogenic structures-Their use in interpreting depositional environments: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists Special Publication 35, p. 67-97.

  • Neto de Carvalho, C., and Rodrigues, N.P.C., 2001, Compound Asterosoma ludwigae Schlirf, 2000 from the Lusitanian Basin (Portugal): Conditional strategies in the behaviour of Crustacea: Journal of Iberian Geology, v. 33, no. 2, p. 295-310.

  • Pollard, J.E., 1988, Trace fossils in coal-bearing sequences: Journal of the Geological Society, London, v. 145, p. 339-350.

  • Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace fossil analysis: Springer Science and Business Media, New York, 226 p.

Text and illustrations by Stephen Greb (KGS).

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Last Modified on 2022-01-20
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