Relative age sequences in sequences of fossiliferous sediments are frequently intricate, thanks to animal groups that evolved quickly to leave easily identifiable fossil species. Yet converting that one-after-the-other dating to absolute values of past time has been difficult and generally debateable. Up to now it has relied on fossil-based correlation with localities where parts of the sequence of interest interleave with volcanic ashes or lavas that can be dated radiometrically. Igneous rocks can provide reference points in time, so that age estimates of intervening sedimentary layers emerge by assuming constant rates of sedimentation and of faunal speciation. However, neither rate can safely be assumed constant, and those of evolutionary processes are of great biological interest.
If only we could date the fossils a wealth of information would be accessible. In the case of organisms that apparently evolved quickly, such as the ammonites of the Mesozoic, time resolution might be extremely fine. Isotopic analysis methods have become sufficiently precise to exploit the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes, for instance, at the very low concentrations found in sedimentary minerals such as calcium carbonate. So this prospect of direct calibration might seem imminent. Geochemists and palaeontologists at Royal Holloway University of London, Leicester University and the British Geological Survey have used the U-Pb method to date Jurassic ammonites (Li, Q. et al. 2014. U–Pb dating of cements in Mesozoic ammonites. Chemical Geology, v. 376, p. 76-83). The species they chose are members of the genus Hildoceras, familiar to junior collectors on the foreshore below the ruined Abbey of St Hilda at the small port of Whitby, in NE England. The abundance and coiled shape of Hildoceras was once cited as evidence for the eponymous founder of the Abbey ridding this choice locality of a plague of venomous serpents using the simple expedient of divine lithification.
The target uranium-containing mineral is the calcite formed on the walls of the ammonites’ flotation chambers either while they were alive or shortly after death. This early cement is found in all well-preserved ammonites. The Hildoceras genus is found in one of the many faunal Zones of the Toarcian Age of the Lower Jurassic; the bifrons Zone (after Hildoceras bifrons). After careful selection of bifrons Zone specimens, the earliest calcite cement to have formed in the chambers was found to yield dates of around 165 Ma with precisions as low as ±3.3 Ma. Another species from the Middle Jurassic Bajocian Age came out at 158.8±4.3 Ma. Unfortunately, these precise ages were between 10-20 Ma younger than the accepted ranges of 174-183 and 168-170 Ma for the Toarcian and Bajocian. The authors ascribe this disappointing discrepancy to the breakdown of the calcium carbonate (aragonite) forming the animals’ shells from which uranium migrated to contaminate the after-death calcite cement.