Scientists Unveil New Species of Cretaceous Brittle Star

New species of Cretaceous brittle star, Ophiomitrella Floorae, named in honor of the Finnish “symphonic heavy metal” band Nightwish’s vocalist. (Photo by Ben Thuy)

(CN) — Paleontologists in Luxembourg recently identified a new species of brittle star — a sea-dwelling echinoderm similar in appearance to the starfish — that thrived during the Cretaceous period.

The creature once lived in the warm, shallow waters off the coast of what is now the Netherlands, around the last days of the dinosaurs. Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Luxembourg named the new species Ophiomitrella floorae, in honor of the famous Finnish musician, Floor Jansen. They presented their discovery in a study published Monday in the journal PeerJ.

A visiting fossil collector first discovered the unidentified specimen by luck 20 years ago at the former ENCI HeidelbergCement company quarry near the Dutch city of Maastricht, where numerous fossil finds have turned up in the quarry’s excavations over the years. The researchers were surprised to find such a small specimen intact when they were alerted to its presence, as fossils of this size typically turn up in broken pieces.

This represents one of the few known examples of an articulated ophiacanthid fossil on record. The fossil was discovered in the bottom six feet of the Gronsveld Member, also known as the Maastricht Formation, a geological formation in the Netherlands and Belgium that dates to the Late Cretaceous. It was first identified by Dr. John Jagt, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

“I reckoned the specimen belonged to a group of brittle-stars that is particularly rare in the fossil record, but its true identity remained puzzling with the information at hand,” Jagt said in a statement. “When examining microfossils extracted from the same rocks that yielded the brittle-star fossil, I noticed microscopic skeletal fragments that seemed to belong to the same species.”

A recent analysis by the study’s authors proved Jagt correct. By viewing the fossil from new angles and applying recent innovations in paleontology, they were able to ascertain the brittle fish’s correct taxonomic placement and fill in a key gap in the fossil record of ophiacanthid brittle stars.

“We were incredibly lucky to have both microscopic skeletal remains and a complete fossil skeleton of the same brittle-star species,” said lead author Ben Thuy in a statement.

Co-author Lea Numberger added: “This provided an exceptionally complete picture of the species.”

Brittle stars are typically deep-sea dwelling creatures, living up to a mile under the sea surface, and unlikely to venture into the warm, shallow waters that once covered the region where the fossil was discovered. That points to a major shift in the lifestyle and behavior of their descendants during the post-Cretaceous era.

“The new brittle star must have lived in a shallow, warm sea while its living relatives are found in the deep sea. This shows that there was a major shift in distribution over the past million years,” Thuy said.

Interestingly, the fossilized creature appears to have wrapped itself around a sea plant, giving researchers insight into the species’ behavior while it was alive. It’s rare for paleontologists to discover fossil evidence showcasing the interactions between different species and their environment, so these types of finds provide scientists with a wealth of valuable information that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent.

“Because the fossil individual was found wrapped around the stalk of a sea lily, we assume that the species lived with and probably even clung to these flower-like echinoderms,” Jagt said.

New species are named by those scientists fortunate enough to discover them, and this brittle star is no exception. Jagt, Thuy and Numberger unanimously decided to honor Finnish heavy metal vocalist Floor Jansen and her band Nightwish by naming the newfound creature after her. The newly named specimen can be viewed at the Natural History Museum in Maastricht in a traveling exhibition called “Rock Fossils on Tour” — along with Kalloprion kilmisteri, a worm named after Lemmy from the band Motörhead.

“Rock music and fossils are a perfect match,” Numberger explained. “They have been inspiring each other for a long time.”

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