Wabash Valley fossils: Crinoids

The Museum holds many items, large and small, that have contributed to the history of Vigo County. While most of them owe their existence to man and his creative mind, some do not. In a corner exhibit in the Museum’s basement are a few items that predate human history. One of these items is a fossil known as a crinoid.

The little fossil crinoid once lived in a period of time known to geologists as the Ordovician-490 million years ago. In that time period, the land that would become Indiana lay many feet under a warm, shallow sea. The sea then was filled with the ancestors of modern-day snails, octopus, squid, etc. and some now extinct animals such as trilobites. The little fossil crinoid was not alone; many different species covered the sea floor, waving back and forth to catch bits of food that floated in the sea currents.

Yet the crinoid was not a plant. It was actually an animal that had a rough, spiny surface. The “stem” of the crinoid was used to hold its body (the “calyx”) above the sea floor while its tentacles gathered food and brought it to the mouth in the center of the tentacles. The “stem” came in varying lengths so each species of crinoids had access to food at different levels. One extinct species had a “stem” over forty feet long! However, they were permanently attached to the seabed by means of a root-like “anchor” called a holdfast.

By now you may be wondering why crinoids are so important to the Wabash Valley. Millions of their fossilized bodies became limestone, an important mineral stone in Indiana. Several local areas have become important sites for finding fossil crinoids. Crawfordsville, Indiana, became famous for beautifully preserved crinoids. The first one, collected in 1842 by 9-year-old Horace Hovey along the banks of Sugar Creek, sparked a fossil “rush” that eventually supplied museums and collectors all over the world with finely detailed crinoids (60 species of crinoids; about 40 genera in all). Two other rich crinoid fossil areas are Cory’s Bluff and along Indiana Creek in Indiana.

You may have held a fossil crinoid and not even known it. Remember “Indian Beads?” These were actually the segments from the “stems” of the crinoids, which often broke apart after they died. These segments can be strung together to make necklaces. Other civilizations liked the crinoid “stem” segments that were shaped like five-pointed stars. They called them “star stones” and were associated with the sun and given religious significance.

The little crinoid fossil and others may be viewed at the Museum. Take a moment and consider what Indiana would be like today if wasn’t for this “flower of the ocean.”

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