Brachiopods Fossils

Victorian Marine Fossils series

What are brachiopods?

Brachiopods are a type of marine ‘shellfish’ having their soft body enclosed in a pair of shells. In this respect they superficially resemble the familiar bivalve molluscs that include clams and mussels, but they are not related to these at all. The two shells of brachiopods are different in size (unlike most bivalves), and the similarity in shape of some forms to Roman oil lamps has led to their being sometimes called ‘lamp-shells’. Brachiopods may be attached to the sea floor by a variety of means, including a fleshy stalk (called a pedicle), spines, or a kind of cement; or they may lie free on the sediment surface. The shell can be opened to allow the animal to pump seawater into it, using a large feathery structure called the lophophore which also filters small food particles from the seawater and extracts oxygen. In some types of brachiopods the two shells have an interlocking hinge, but in other types the shells lack a hinge and are simply held together by muscles.

Illustration of Brachiopod, Spirifer sp.

Brachiopod, Spirifer sp., Devonian Period (410-354 mya)
Artist: Kate Nolan / Source: Museum Victoria

Where are fossil brachiopods found?

Brachiopods were one of the dominant forms of life in the oceans for much of the Palaeozoic Era, from 545 to 251 million years ago (mya), during which time they evolved many different forms. At the end of the Palaeozoic they suffered massive extinctions, and although they again became abundant during the following Mesozoic Era (251-65 mya), they never recovered their former variety. Fossil brachiopods are so diverse and widespread that they are often used by palaeontologists to determine the age of rocks in which they are found. Brachiopods are very common in Middle Palaeozoic rocks of central and eastern Victoria, and are also found in Tertiary limestones.

Photo of fossil brachiopods, Archaeorthis waratahensis

Fossil brachiopods, Archaeorthis waratahensis; Early Ordovician (c. 485 my), Waratah Bay, Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria

Living brachiopods and their relatives

Living brachiopods can still be found in many marine environments (for example, several species inhabit the sediments of Bass Strait and Westernport Bay), but they are most common in deep and cold waters and so are unlikely to be seen. Fewer than 400 living species of brachiopods have been discovered — a far cry from the number of fossil species, of which at least 30 000 are known. Some brachiopods alive today are almost unchanged in appearance from some of the earliest forms that appeared during the Cambrian Period at the beginning of the Palaeozoic.

Brachiopods are related to bryozoans, another group of marine invertebrates that are more commonly seen though possibly not recognized (see Museum Victoria Information Sheet No. 10138). Although bryozoans and brachiopods appear very different, their relationship is indicated by the presence of a similar water filtering mechanism (the lophophore) and by other features.

Visitor Information

Common species of brachiopods from Victoria are exhibited in the Marine Invertebrate Fossil Drawers in the Melbourne Museum Discovery Centre.

Comments (12)

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Bella Bundesen 13 October, 2014 12:19
I'm doing an assignment on Brachiopds and I was just wondering how do they grow? And how big did they get?
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Discovery Centre 18 October, 2014 12:21

Hi Bella - we don't have staff with specific expertise on Brachipods, but the general information you are seeking is relatively easy to find on Wikipedia; whilst it's always a good idea to check the source information on wiki pages, in this instance the information you are after appears to have authoritative citations.

Good luck with your assignment.

Discovery Centre 16 February, 2012 11:42
Hi there. Thanks for your feedback. Maybe you could elaborate on your comment in order to help us improve our website?
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:( 16 February, 2012 00:09
DUMBEST WEBSITE EVER!!
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Discovery Centre 6 August, 2011 15:10

Hi Rose, The Discovery Centre would be very happy to identify your fossils and answer any questions you may have about them.

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rose raymond 6 August, 2011 14:11
found several brachiopod near london ontario. lots of detail and an outline of one. have a question about a lager fossil that i have that looks like a large foot in rock. not a human foot
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chris 18 March, 2011 16:22
good website but could used more info about discoveries
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MB (Hutton Institute) 21 July, 2010 06:59
Informative, well presented!
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G.D. 24 March, 2010 10:23
This really helped me when I needed to do a report on Brachiopods! Thank you very much for this valuable information.
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Chris Buro 24 March, 2010 10:20
2 many big words
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Fossil Detective 25 June, 2009 03:59
Nice write up on brachiopods. I thought the artwork of the Spirifer was nice with all the radial lines. You can see an example of brachiopod shells used as a habitat for other creatures (corals, bryozoans, inarticulate brachiopods) here.
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adham ahmed 23 March, 2009 12:08
very good site
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