Graptolites - Encyclopedia

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GRAPTOLITES, an assemblage of extinct zoophytes whose skeletal remains are found in the Palaeozoic rocks, occasionally in great abundance. They are usually preserved as branching or unbranching carbonized bodies, tree-like, leaf-like or rod-like in shape, their edges regularly toothed or denticulated. Most frequently they occur lying on the bedding planes of black shales; less commonly they are met with in many other kinds of sediment, and when in limestone they may retain much of their original relief and admit of a detailed microscopic study.

Each Graptolite represents the common horny or chitinous investment or supporting structure of a colony of zooids, each tooth-like projection marking the position of the sheath or theca of an individual zooid. Some of the branching forms have a distinct outward resemblance to the polyparies of Sertularia and Plumularia among the recent Hydroida (Calyptoblastea); in none of the unbranching forms, however, is the similarity by any means close.

The Graptolite polyparies vary considerably in size: the majority range from i in. to about 6 in. in length; few examples have been met with having a length of more than 30 in.

Very different views have been held as to the systematic place and rank of the Graptolites. Linnaeus included them in his group of false fossils (Graptolithus = written stone). At one time they were referred by some to the Polyzoa (Bryozoa), and later, by almost general consent, to the Hydroida (Calyptoblastea) among the Hydrozoa (Hydromedusae). Of late years an opinion is gaining ground that they may be regarded as constituting collectively an independent phylum of their own (Graptolithina). There are two main groups, or sub-phyla: the Graptoloidea or Graptolites proper, and the Dendroidea or tree-like Graptolites; the former is typified by the unbranched genus Monograptus and the latter by the many-branched genus Dendrograptus. A Monograptus makes its first appearance as a minute dagger-like body (the sicula), which represents the flattened covering of the primary or embryonic zooid of the colony. This sicula, which had originally the shape of a hollow cone, is formed of two portions or regions - an upper and smaller (apical or embryonic) portion, marked by delicate longitudinal lines, and having a fine tabular thread (the nema) proceeding from its apex; and a lower (thecal or apertural) portion, marked by transverse lines of growth and widening in the direction of the mouth, the lip or apertural margin of which forms the broad end of the sicula. This margin is normally furnished with a perpendicular spine (virgella) and occasionally with two shorter lateral spines or lobes.

A bud is given off from the sicula at a variable distance along its length. From this bud is developed the first zooid and first serial theca of the colony. This theca grows in the direction of the apex of the sicula, to which it adheres by its dorsal wall. Thus while the mouth of the sicula is directed downwards, that of the first serial theca is pointed upwards, making a theoretical angle of about 180° with the direction of that of the sicula.

From this first theca originates a second, opening in the same direction, and from the second a third, and so on, in a continuous linear series until the polypary is complete. Each zooid buds from the one immediately preceding it in the series, and intercommunication is effected by all the budding orifices (including that in the wall of the sicula) remaining permanently open. The sicula itself ceases to grow soon after the earliest theca have been. developed; it remains permanently attached to the dorsal wall of the polypary, of which it forms the proximal end, its apex rarely reaching beyond the third or fourth theca.

A fine cylindrical rod or fibre (the so-called solid axis or virgula) becomes developed in a median groove in the dorsal wall of the polypary, and is sometimes continued distally as a naked rod. It was formerly supposed that a virgula was present in all the Graptoloidea; hence the term Rhabdophora sometimes employed for the Graptoloidea in general, and rhabdosome for the individual polypary; but while the virgula is present in many (Axonophora) it is absent as such in others (Axonolipa).

The Graptoloidea are arranged in eight families, each named after a characteristic genus: (i) Dichograptidae; (2) Leptograptidae; (3) Dicranograptidae; (4) Diplograptidae; (5) Glossograptidae (sub-family, Lasiograptidae); (6) Retiolitidae; (7) Dimorphograptidae; (8) Monograptidae.

In all these families the polypary originates as in Monograptus from a nema-bearing sicula, which invariably opens downwards and gives off only a single bud, such branching as may take place occurring at subsequent stages in the growth of the polypary. In some species young examples have been met with in which the nema ends above in a small membranous disk, which has been interpreted as an organ of attachment to the underside of floating bodies, probably sea weeds, from which the young polypary hung suspended.

Broadly speaking, these families make their first appearance in time in the order given above, and show a progressive morphological evolution along certain special lines. There is a tendency for the branches to become reduced in number, and for the serial thecae to become directed more and more upwards towards the line of the nema. In the oldest family - Dichograptidae--in which the branching polypary is bilaterally symmetrical and. the thecae uniserial (monoprionidian) - t here is a gradation from earlier groups with many branches to later groups with only two; and from species in which all the branches and' their thecae are directed downwards, through species in which the branches become bent back more and more outwards and upwards, until in some the terminal thecae open almost vertically. In the genus Phyllograptus the branches have become reduced i, Diptograptus, young sicula.

2, Monograptus dubius, sicula and first serial theca (partly restored).

3, Young form (all above after Wiman).

4a, Older form.

4b, Showing virgula(after Holm).

5, Rastrites distans.) 6, Base of Diptograptus (after Wiman).

7, D. calcaratus. 8, Dimorphograptus. 9, Base of Didymograptus minulus (after Holm).

Io, Young Dictyograptus, with primary disk.

II, Ibid. Diptograptus (after Ruedemann).

12 a-b, Base and transverse section, Retiolites Geinitzianus (after Holm).

13, Bryograptus Kjerulfi. 14, Dichograptus octobrachiatus, with central disk.

15, Didymograptus Murchisoni. 16, D. gibberulus. 17 a-b, Phyllograptus and transverse section.

18, Nemagraptus gracilis. 19, Dicranograptus ramosus. to four and these coalesce by their dorsal walls along the line of the nema, and the sicula becomes embedded in the base of the polypary. In the family of the Diplograptidae the branches are reduced to two; these also coalesce similarly by their dorsal walls, and the polypary thus becomes biserial (diprionidian), and the line of the nema is taken by a long axial tube-like structure, the nemacaulus or virgular tube. Finally, in the latest family,.. the Monograptidae, the branches are theoretically reduced to one, the polypary is uniserial throughout, and all the thecae are directed outwards and upwards.

The thecae in the earliest family - Dichograptidae - are so similar in form to the sicula itself that the polypary has been compared to a colony of siculae; there is the greatest variation in shape in those of the latest family - Monograptidae--in some species of which the terminal portion of each theca becomes isolated (Rastrites) and in some coiled into a rounded lobe. The thecae in several of the families are occasionally provided with spines or lateral processes: the spines are especially conspicuous at the base in some biserial forms: in the Lasiograptidae the lateral processes originate a marginal meshwork surrounding the polypary.

Histologically, the perisarc or test in the Graptoloidea appears to be composed of three layers, a middle layer of variable structure,. and an overlying and an underlying layer of remarkable tenuity. The central layer is usually thick and marked by lines of growth; but in Glossograptus and Lasiograptus it is thinned down to a fine membrane stretched upon a skeleton framework of lists and fibres,. and in Retiolites this membrane is reduced to a delicate network.. The groups typified by these three genera are sometimes referred to, collectively, as the Retioloidea, and the structure as retioloid. It is the general practice of palaeontologists to regard each graptolite polypary (rhabdosome) developed from a single sicula as an individual of the highest order. Certain American forms, however, which are preserved as stellate groups, have been interpreted as complex umbrella-shaped colonial stocks, individuals of a still higher order (synrhabdosomes), composed of a number of biserial polyparies (each having a sicula at its outer extremity) attached by their nemacauli to a common centre of origin, which is provided with two disks, a swimming bladder and a ring of capsules.

In the Dendroidea, as a rule, the polypary is non-symmetrical in shape and tree-like or shrub-like in habit, with numerous branches irregularly disposed, and with a distinct stem-like or short basal portion ending below in root-like fibres or in a membranous disk or sheet of attachment. An exception, however,, is constituted by the comprehensive genus Dictyonema, which embraces species composed of a large number of divergent and sub-parallel branches, united by transverse dissepiments into a symmetrical cone-like or funnel-shaped polypary, and includes some forms (Dictyograptus) which originate from a nema-bearing sicula and have been claimed as belonging to the Graptoloidea.

Of the early development of the polypary in the Dendroidea little is known, but the more mature stages have been fully worked out. In Dictyonema the branches show thecae of two kinds: (I) the ordinary tubular thecae answering to those of the Graptoloidea and occupied by the nourishing zooids; and (2) the so-called bithecae, birdnest-like cups (regarded by their discoverers as gonothecae) opening alternately right and left of the ordinary thecae. Internally, there existed a third set of thecae, held to have been inhabited by the budding individuals. In the genus Dendrograptus the gonothecae open within the walls of the ordinary thecae, and the branches present an outward resemblance to those of the uniserial Graptoloidea. But in striking contrast to what obtains among the Graptoloidea in general, the budding orifices in the Dendroidea become closed,, and all the various cells shut off from each other.

The classification of the Dendroidea is as yet unsatisfactory: the families most conspicuous are those typified by the genera Dendrograptus, Dictyonema, Inocaulis and Thamnograptus. As regards the modes of reproduction among the Graptolites little is known. In the Dendroidea, as already pointed out, the bithecae were possibly gonothecae, but they have been interpreted by some as nematophores. In the Graptoloidea certain lateral and vesicular appendages of the polypary in the Lasiograptidae have been looked upon as connected with the reproductive system; and in the umbrella-shaped synrhabdosomes already referred to, the common centre is surrounded by a ring of what have been regarded as ovarian capsules. The theory of the gonangial nature of the vesicular bodies in the Graptoloidea is, however, disputed by some authorities, and it has been suggested that the zooid of the sicula itself is not the 20, Climacograptus Scharenbergi. 2 I, Glossograptus Hincksii. 22, Lasiograptus costatus (after Elles and Wood).

23, Dictyonema (-graptus) flabeliiforme (-is). 24, Dictyonema (-dendron) peltatum with base of attachment.

25, D. cervicorne, branches (after Holm).

26, D. rarum (section after Wiman).

27, Dendrograptus Hallianus. 28, Synrhabdosome of Diptograptus (after Ruedemann).

S, Sicula.

u, Upper or apical portion. 1, Lower or apertural.

m, Mouth.

N, Nema.

nn, Nemacaulus or virgular tube. V, Virgula.

vv, Virgella.

zz, Septal strands.

T, Theca.

C, Common canal (in Retiolites).

G, Gonangium.

g, Gonotheca.

b, Budding theca.

product of the normal or sexual mode of propagation in the group, but owes its origin to a peculiar type of budding or non-sexual reproduction, in which, as temporary resting or protecting structures, the vesicular bodies may have had a share.

As respects the mode of life of the Graptolites there can be little doubt that the Dendroidea were, with some exceptions, sessile or benthonic animals, their polyparies, like those of the recent Calyptoblastea, growing upwards, their bases remaining attached to the sea floor or to foreign bodies, usually fixed. The Graptoloidea have also been regarded by some as benthonic organisms. A more prevalent view, however, is that the majority were pseudo-planktonic or drifting colonies, hanging from the underside of floating seaweeds; their polyparies being each .suspended by the nema in the earliest stages of growth, and, in later stages, some by the nemacaulus, while others became adherent above by means of a central disk or by parts of their dorsal walls. Some of these ancient seaweeds may have remained permanently rooted in the littoral regions, while others may have become broken off and drifted, like the recent Sargassum, at the mercy of the winds and currents, carrying the attached Graptolites into all latitudes. The more complex umbrellashaped colonies of colonies (synrhabdosomes) described as provided with a common swimming bladder (pneumatophore?) may have attained a holo-planktonic or free-swimming mode of existence.

The range of the Graptolites in time extends from the Cambrian to the Carboniferous. The Dendroidea alone, however, have this extended range, the Graptoloidea becoming extinct at the close of Silurian time. Both groups make their first appearance together near the end of the Cambrian; but while in the succeeding Ordovician and Silurian the Dendroidea are comparatively rare, the Graptoloidea become the most characteristic and, locally, the most abundant fossils of these systems.

The species of the Graptoloidea have individually a remarkably short range in geological time; but the geographical distribution of the group as a whole, and that of many of its species, is almost world-wide. This combination of circumstances has given the Graptoloidea a paramount stratigraphical importance as palaeontological indices of the detailed sequence and correlation of the Lower Palaeozoic rocks in general. Many Graptolite zones, showing a constant uniformity of succession, paralleled in this respect only by the longer known Ammonite zones of the Jurassic, have been distinguished in Britain and northern Europe, each marked by a characteristic species. Many British species and associations of genera and species, occurring on corresponding horizons to those on which they are found in Britain, have been met with in the graptolite-bearing Lower Palaeozoic formations of other parts of Europe, in America, Australia, New Zealand :and elsewhere.


Linnaeus, Systema naturae (12th ed. 1768); Hall, Graptolites of the Quebec Group (1865); Barrande, Graptolites de Boheme (1850); Carruthers, Revision of the British Graptolites (1868); H. A. Nicholson, Monograph of British Graptolites, pt. i <1872); id. and J. E. Marr, Phylogeny of the Graptolites (1895); Hopkinson, On British Graptolites (1869); Allman, Monograph of Gymnoblastic Hydroids (1872); Lapworth, An Improved Classification of the Rhabdophora (1873); The Geological Distribution of the Rhabdophora (1879, 1880); Walther, Lebensweise fossiler Meerestiere (1897); Tullberg, Skf nes Graptoliter (1882, 1883); TOrnquist, Graptolites Scanian Rastrites Beds (1899); Wiman, Die Graptolithen (1895); Holm, Gotlands Graptoliter (1890); Perner, Graptolites de Boheme (1894-1899); R. Ruedemann, Development and Mode of Growth of Diplograptus (1895-1896); Graptolites of New York, vol. i. (1904), vol. ii. (1908); Frech, Lethaea palaeozoica, Graptolithiden (1897); Elles and Wood, Monograph of British Graptolites (1901-1909). (C. L.*)

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