NATURAL TREASURE The 435-million-year-old starfish fossil that was found in the Maam Valley.
A STARFISH fossil discovered by a geologist in the Maam Valley in the 1980s has just recently been analysed, and has turned out to be a mind-boggling 435 million years old. This means it predates the world’s first dinosaurs by at least 205 million years.
The natural treasure was first found by Dr Eamon Doyle in the late 1980s while he was completing his PhD in Galway. He discovered the tiny creature in a very thin layer of fossils on the side of a hill in the mountain range, halfway between Maam Cross and Leenane.
Details of the find are contained in the latest issue of the Irish Journal of Earth Sciences, published by the Royal Irish Academy. The fossil was studied by researchers from the USA, the Netherlands and the UK and they determined that the thumbnail-sized fossil is an ophiuroid starfish, commonly known as a ‘brittle star’.
This type of starfish first developed about 500 million years ago, and has remained relatively similar to this day.
However, the fossil discovered in Connemara has been confirmed as a new species and the oldest of its type in Ireland. It has been named ‘Crepidosoma doyleii’ in honour of Dr Doyle, who is now a geologist with the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Unesco Global Geopark and Clare County Council.
“I had no idea its was roughly 400 million years old, but starfish are very rare,” the geologist told The Irish Times. “I forwarded it on and it was stored in the Natural History Museum, but these international researchers specialise in the evolution of communities and decided to examine it further.”
The area where the fossil was found was once covered by an ocean known as the Iapetus Ocean, which predated the Atlantic. This brittle star dates from the Silurian period when the first true fish and plants appeared.
Unlocking the past
The discovery has caused a huge amount of excitement in research circles.
“The remote areas of the west of Ireland continue to yield some exceptional fossils with a significant impact on understanding of the history of life,” said one of the researchers, Professor David Harper of Durham University. “These unique specimens of fossil starfish from the Silurian rocks of Connemara are a key piece of evidence in the hunt for past life in the ocean that covered Ireland, some 435 million years ago.”
The fossil is currently in the US but is due to return to the National Museum of Ireland, where it will be put on display.