Fossil Stony Coral

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Kathy Hollis, M.S.

Kathy Hollis with Triceratops obtusus, collected in 1890 by John Bell Hatcher

Courtesy of Adrienne Block

Kathy Hollis is the collections manager in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Department of Paleobiology. As a kid she would give rocks as gifts, assuming everyone thought rocks were as cool as she did. She majored in geology at the College of Wooster in Ohio and went on to finish a master’s in geology at the Ohio State University in 2005. It was at Ohio State that Kathy realized her love for museum collections. She finished a master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2008 specializing in collections care and museum-based research. Kathy has been at the Smithsonian since 2010 and helps to care for one of the largest fossil collections in the world. Her work involves getting the information about what organisms lived when and where out of the collection drawers and making it digital, accessible, and searchable online. Kathy brakes for fossil echinoderms.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.
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Fossil Tabulata coral (Halysites sp.)
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, Department of Paleobiology

About Corals and Sea Anemones (Class Anthozoa): Paleobiology

While some fossil corals from the Precambrian (more than 540 million years ago) have been found, they are not abundant until later. By about 450 million years ago, several groups of corals were common on Earth. Early corals included Rugosa and Tabulata corals, both with calcite skeletons. Some Rugosa (the horn corals) were solitary, while others lived in large colonies. Tabulata formed colonies with hexagonal patterns like honeycombs. Sponges and bryozoans were still the main reef builders, but these colonial corals gradually surpassed them. The Permian corals went extinct at the end-of-Permian mass extinction event, but soft-bodied, anemone like animals (“naked corals”) survived. Naked corals gave rise to modern calcified corals (scleractinians), formed when they adapted t geochemical changes in the ocean by secreting stony skeletons. During the Triassic (about 250 million years ago), stony corals assumed their role that continues today as the main reef builders on Earth.

Fossil cnidarian (horn coral)
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, Department of Paleobiology

About Cnidarians (Phylum Cnidaria): Paleobiology

Fossils of soft-bodied Cnidarians are rare, although they may be some of the earliest fossils of complex animals. Paleontologists have debated whether fossils from the Ediacaran (more than 540 million years ago) that look like jellyfish and sea pens are Cnidarians. The first definite Cnidarian fossils are from the Cambrian (about 500 million years ago). Some Cnidarians begin to make mineralized skeletons then, which were more likely to fossilize than the soft body parts underneath. During the Paleozoic, Cnidarians underwent a diversification into many forms. Jellyfish, hydrozoans, and corals emerged as distinct lineages. While various extinction events impacted Cnidarians along the way, these lineages survived to the present day. Colonial corals, whose skeletons accumulate into large reefs, ended up leaving a substantial fossil record. Because corals are sensitive to environmental variables, such as temperature and water quality, they have been used as indicators of past climate and other conditions.