Final Journey of the Horseshoe Crab

The Longest Mortichnial Trackway in the Fossil Record

MesolimilusThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center

A Crab's Final Journey

The Solnhofen Formation in Germany is known for the exquisite fossils that have been excavated from its limestone deposits.  One of the most dramatic of these fossils is this mortichnial trackway - a 9.7 meter fatal trek of a small but determined horseshoe crab. Thru scientific research, paleontologists have attempted to reconstruct the final moments of the ill - fated crab. 

Horseshore Crab Trackway & DiagramThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center

The entire trackway is 9.7 meters long.

The ill - fated journey begins. The horseshoe crab landed at the bottom of the Solnhofen lagoon, and began to walk along its muddy bottom.

The detail is extraordinary; the long line in the center of the track is the crab's telson (tail) dragging along the soft ocean floor. Traces of the legs can be seen on either side.

Here, the impression of the crab's shell can be seen. The crab stopped to rest, or perhaps tried burrowing into the sediment. Regardless, it decided to continue its trek.

The track becomes chaotic. The water in the Solnhofen lagoon was anoxic, containing very little oxygen to support life. The horseshoe crab was slowly asphyxiating to death in the lifeless lagoon

The death march concludes - the horseshoe crab succumbs to the anoxic water and dies. Sediment quickly covered the crab and its final 9.7 meter journey, preserving it for over 145 million years.

Horseshoe Crab StartThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center

The Landing Site

Horseshoe crabs swim upside down. The displaced mud - seen here, at the beginning of the trackway - is most likely a result of the crab landing and turning itself right side up, using its "tail," called a telson. From here, the death march begins. 

Horseshoe Crab TrackwayThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center

The Rest Stop

Ichnofossils contain no skeletal parts; they are traces left behind by ancient plants and animals. These include trackways, burrows, even fossilized dung. Here, the impression of the front of the horseshoe crab's shell can be seen in the rock. It is thought the crab stopped to rest and tried to burrow in the mud. This evidence of behavior could not be learned from the crab's fossilized body, which is why ichnofossils are so valuable in paleontology. 

MesolimilusThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center

The Perpetrator

Horseshoe crabs are commonly called "living fossils." They first appeared over 400 million years ago, and have remained virtually unchanged since that time. This particular species of horseshoe crab - Mesolimulus walchi - is common in the Solnhofen Formation. There are many examples of Mesolimulus death tracks from this fossil desposit, but none are as long and unique as this track. 

Horseshore Crab Trackway & DiagramThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Back to Life

Despite beauty and remarkable preservation, most fossils only provide a reconstruction of prehistoric organisms. This mortichnial trackway  - the final journey of the horseshoe crab - has brought it to life in a way a skeleton alone could never accomplish. The movements of this crab are immaculately preserved in the limestone of the Solnhofen, allowing paleontologists to study its behavior in addition to its fossil remains. It is a small but personal look into a 150 million year old prehistoric world. 

Credits: Story

For more information on the Solnhofen mortichinal trackway:
Dean R. Lomax & Christopher A. Racay (2012): A Long Mortichnial Trackway of Mesolimulus walchi from the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Lithographic Limestone near Wintershof, Germany, Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces, 19:3, 175-183

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Natural History
The beautiful, the dangerous, the endangered. Up close.
View theme
Google apps