Ammonites are an extinct group of ocean going animals. These molluscs are more closely related to living octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish than they are to living Nautilus species.

Ammonites are excellent index fossils, and it is often possible to link the rock layer in which they are found to specific geological time periods. Their fossil shells usually take the form of spirals, although there were some helically-spiraled and non-spiraled forms (known asheteromorphs). 
The name ammonite, from which the scientific term is derived, was inspired by the spiral shape of their fossilized shells, which somewhat resemble tightly coiled rams' horns. Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD. near Pompeii) called fossils of these animals ammonis cornua ("horns of Ammon") because the Egyptian god Ammon (Amun) was typically depicted wearing ram's horns.

Because ammonites and their close relatives are extinct, little is known about their way of life. Their soft body parts are very rarely preserved in any detail. Nonetheless, much has been worked out by examining ammonoid shells and by using models of these shells in water tanks.
Many ammonoids probably lived in the open water of ancient seas, rather than at the sea bottom. This is suggested by the fact that their fossils are often found in rocks that were laid down under conditions where no bottom-dwelling life is found. Many of them (such asOxynoticeras) are thought to have been good swimmers with flattened, discus-shaped, streamlined shells, although some ammonoids were less effective swimmers and were likely to have been slow-swimming bottom-dwellers. Synchrotron analysis of an aptychophoran ammonite revealed remains of isopod and mollusc larva in its buccal cavity, indicating that at least this kind of ammonite fed on plankton.

Fossilized ammonoids have been found showing tooth marks from such attacks. They may have avoided predation by squirting ink, much like modern cephalopods; ink is occasionally preserved in fossil specimens.
The soft body of the creature occupied the largest segments of the shell at the end of the coil. The smaller earlier segments were walled off and the animal could maintain its buoyancy by filling them with gas. Thus the smaller sections of the coil would have floated above the larger sections.

Shell anatomy and diversity

Basic shell anatomy

A variety of ammonite forms, from Ernst Haeckel's 1904 Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature).

The chambered part of the ammonite shell is called a phragmocone. The phragmocone contains a series of progressively larger chambers, called camerae (sing. camera) that are divided by thin walls called septa (sing. septum). Only the last and largest chamber, the body chamber, was occupied by the living animal at any given moment. As it grew, it added newer and larger chambers to the open end of the coil. A thin living tube called a siphuncle passed through the septa, extending from the ammonite's body into the empty shell chambers. Through a hyperosmotic active transport process, the ammonite emptied water out of these shell chambers. This enabled it to control the buoyancy of the shell and thereby rise or descend in the water column.

A primary difference between ammonites and nautiloids is that the siphuncle of ammonites (excepting Clymeniina) runs along the ventral periphery of the septa and camerae (i.e., the inner surface of the outer axis of the shell), while the siphuncle of nautiloids runs more or less through the center of the septa and camerae.

Sexual dimorphism

One feature found in shells of the modern Nautilus is the variation in the shape and size of the shell according to the sex of the animal, the shell of the male being slightly smaller and wider than that of the female. This sexual dimorphism is thought to be an explanation for the variation in size of certain ammonite shells of the same species, the larger shell (called a macroconch) being female, and the smaller shell (called a microconch) being male. This is thought to be because the female required a larger body size for egg production. A good example of this sexual variation is found in Bifericeras from the early part of the Jurassic period of Europe.

It is only in relatively recent years that the sexual variation in the shells of ammonites has been recognized. The macroconch and microconch of one species were often previously mistaken for two closely related but different species occurring in the same rocks. However, these "pairs" were so consistently found together that it became apparent that they were in fact sexual forms of the same species.

Variations in shape

The majority of ammonite species feature a shell that is a planispiral - flat coil, but other species feature a shell that is nearly straight (as in baculites). Still other species' shells are coiled helically, superficially like that of a large gastropod (as in Turrilites and Bostrychoceras). Some species' shells are even initially uncoiled, then partially coiled, and finally straight at maturity (as in Australiceras). These partially uncoiled and totally uncoiled forms began to diversify mainly during the early part of the Cretaceous and are known as heteromorphs.

Perhaps the most extreme and bizarre looking example of a heteromorph is Nipponites, which appears to be a tangle of irregular whorls lacking any obvious symmetrical coiling. However, upon closer inspection the shell proves to be a three-dimensional network of connected "U" shapes. Nipponites occurs in rocks of the upper part of the Cretaceous in Japan and the USA.

Ammonites vary greatly in the ornamentation (surface relief) of their shells. Some may be smooth and relatively featureless, except for growth lines, and resemble that of the modern Nautilus. In others various patterns of spiral ridges and ribs or even spines are shown. This type of ornamentation of the shell is especially evident in the later ammonites of the Cretaceous.


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