Dr Eamon Doyle discovered an ‘excellently preserved’ fossilised sponge called Cyathophycus balori that can tell us a lot about ancient life in Co Clare.

The Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare is one of Ireland’s most famous international heritage sites, visited by thousands of tourists every year. Just in time to ring in the new year, a team of scientists has discovered that the cliffs may have played host to non-human ‘tourists’ many millions of years ago – in the form of carboniferous-era creatures.

Scientists discovered a species of fossilised sponge called Cyathophycus balori very near the cliffs. The 315m-year-old sponge is up to 50cm tall, making it the largest known example of its kind anywhere in the world.

The fossilised creature was found by Dr Eamon Doyle, a geologist for the Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark. Doyle pointed out that when the spongelike creature was alive several hundred-million years ago, the rocks that make up the cliffs today were located near the equator – meaning Cyathophycus balori unwittingly travelled quite a bit over time.

According to Doyle, the fossil can tell scientists more about the natural environment of Co Clare in 2024.

“Discoveries like this help us to promote awareness about the wonderful geological legacy we have on our doorstop here in Co Clare and to encourage a new generation of palaeontologists, that is, geologists that specialise in the study of fossils to visit and learn more about the unique geology of Ireland’s west coast.”

The fossil was “excellently preserved”, added Doyle. “This is an exceptionally large example of a type of fossil sponge that was previously only known from much older rocks elsewhere in the world. It is the first record of this type of fossil sponge from Ireland and its excellent preservation is highly unusual.”

When it was alive, the spongey creature looked a little bit like a vase or an urn with a large circular opening at the very top, surrounded by a ring of eyelash-like structures. It was named after the mythological giant Balor of the Evil Eye. Out of all the creatures living in our oceans nowadays, it perhaps most closely resembles the venus flower basket sponge, which is found the Pacific Ocean.

The creature’s composition means that finding very-well preserved fossils of it is very difficult, so scientists like Doyle are delighted at the discovery. He said that the sponge was originally made of “a rectangular meshwork of tiny spicules made of silica, held together by a thin organic membrane”. This meant that when the creatures died, they usually fell apart quickly.

Doyle’s discovery has been published in the latest edition of international geological journal Geobios, with the collaboration of lead author and international fossil sponge expert Dr Joseph Botting and co-author Dr Lucy Muir. Both scientists are honorary research fellows at National Museum Wales (Amgueddfa Cymru), and they worked closely with Doyle.

Blathnaid O’Dea

This article originally appeared on www.siliconrepublic.com and can be found at here