Ammonid longevity


Staff member
Sep 4, 2006
First fertile, then futile: ammonites or the boon and bane of many offspringUniversity of Zurich, April 23, 2012

This sounds very similar to what Dr. Gilly recently observed with the size and reproduction age of the Humboldt squid.

First fertile, then futile: ammonites or the boon and bane of many offspring

Ammonites changed their reproductive strategy from initially few and large offspring to numerous and small hatchlings. Thanks to their many offspring, they survived three mass extinctions, a research team headed by paleontologists from the University of Zurich has discovered.

For 300 million years, they were the ultimate survivors. They successfully negotiated three mass extinctions, only to die out eventually at the end of the Cretaceous along with the dinosaurs: Ammonoids, or ammonites as they are also known, were marine cephalopods believed to be related to today’s squid and nautiloids. Ammonoids changed their reproductive strategy early on in the course of evolution. However, what was once a successful initial strategy may well have proved to be a fatal boomerang at the end of the Cretaceous, as an international team of researchers headed by paleontologists from the University of Zurich demonstrate in a study recently published in the science journal "Evolution".
Embryos already had coiled shells

At the beginning of their evolution, ammonoids had straighter shells, which, like other mollusks, they began to coil during the Devonian Period. The precise reason behind this change is unknown. The selection pressure in favor of more tightly coiled shells is believed to have sprung from the ammonoids’ natural predators. As the scientists have now discovered, the shell change also affected the ammonoid embryos. “In the oldest ammonoids, the embryonic shells were considerably bigger and coiled less tightly than in later forms,” explains Kenneth De Baets, a paleontologist at the University of Zurich, summing up the latest findings.
Smaller hatchlings, more offspring

There were two more evolutionary trends that coincided with the increasingly more tightly coiled shells: The size of the embryonic shells shrank increasingly over time – the hatchlings became smaller and smaller. In parallel, the shell size of fully grown animals increased and, on the whole, the animals became increasingly bigger. Based on this, the researchers deduced that the number of offspring in ammonoids rocketed during the Devonian Period. This is confirmed by discoveries of substantial clusters of fossilized embryonic shells at the end of the Devonian Period and more recent deposits.

“The large number of offspring could have been the key to the rapid proliferation of the ammonoids in the aftermath of each mass extinction,” De Baets suspects. His hypothesis is supported by the fact that precisely the groups with smaller, loosely coiled embryonic shells and proportionately fewer offspring died out in certain Devonian extinction events. Nevertheless, the once successful reproductive strategy of many offspring appears to have turned against them at the end of the Cretaceous Period: The ammonoids died out. Only nautiloids have survived until today: They are characterized by large young and a small number of offspring. Exactly how this circumstance had a positive impact upon the survival of the nautiloids is unknown. All that is clear, according to De Baets, is that nautiloids are extremely vulnerable with their reproductive strategy nowadays in view of overfishing.

Kenneth De Baets, Christian Klug, Dieter Korn, Neil H. Landmann. Early evolutionary trends in ammonoid embryonic development. Evolution, International Journal of Organic Evolution. 14 February, 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01567.x

Oct 19, 2006
Hmm. That's interesting because stuff looking at end-Cretaceous extinction selectivity and larval type has found none, either in gastropods (Jablonski 1986 and many times thereafter) nor in sea urchins (Smith 1998). Of course it's possible they screwed up their methods somehow; diversity analysis is Hard and I have heard some concerns regarding at least Jablonski's methodology in that study.

However, taking the existing research at face value, what might be the factor that made the extinction selective for ammonoid larvae but nobody else's? Landman, btw, is pretty convinced that most ammonoids were not predators in the classical sense, but probably mainly filter-feeding -- if you remember that one paper about the soft parts, that's the explanation.


Staff member
Nov 19, 2002
Perhaps water depth (?floating ammonoid egg masses/larvae? benthic others?). Ammonoids did survive the PT event, the most severe, what was different with the KT event?


Nov 6, 2012
one thing ive noticed when reading up on ammonoids is that two of their major adaptive radiations coincided with similar radiations in fishes. when ammonoids first appeared in the Devonian, fishes like placoderms and chondrichthyans were already all over the place. in the Cretaceous, heteromorphs started popping up right after teleosts experienced their own radiation. perhaps their evolution was driven interactions with jawed fishes. and more to the point, perhaps these new teleost predators may have been too much for them to handle, which could be one of the reasons why they failed to survive the K-T extinction (despite surviving some many previous events).