Lilies of the Sea

By Roos, Anna Marie | Natural History, December/January 2009 | Go to article overview

Lilies of the Sea


Roos, Anna Marie, Natural History


Crinoid fossils posed a puzzle to those who first collected them: were they animal, vegetable, mineral-or otherwordly?

LINDISMRNE, OR HOLY ISLAND,Uesjust off the coast of northeastern England, picturesquely connected to the mainland at low tide. InJuIy 1671, the English naturalist John Ray made a point of trekking there on one of his "simpling voyages" to gather specimens of medicinal plants for the second edition of his Catalogue of the Plants of England. A Cambridge don and Royal Society member, Ray was experiencing a degree of fame. The first edition of his Catalogue, the country's first such comprehensive botanical work, had been published in 1670, and his Experiments Concerning the Motion of Sap in Trees had appeared a year earlier. Today he is widely recognized as the first person to use the term "species" in the modern biological sense, and his work is credited with inspiring the taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.

The island's isolation may have made it a choice place to gather rare plants, but its remote location and spare beauty were also conducive to spiritual practice. In the seventh century, King (later Saint) Oswald of Northumbria invited the Scottish monks who had converted him at lona (founded earlier by missionaries from Ireland) to build a monastery on Lindisfarne. There monk scribes later created the Lindisfarne Gospels, a manuscript famous for its illuminated pages of Celtic knots and iconic saints decorated with gold and red lead.

At the time of Ray's arrival, Holy Island was also famous for its associations with Saint Cuthbert (ca. 634-687) . Originally a shepherd boy, Cuthbert became bishop ofLindisfarne, where during his life he was renowned for his holiness and miracles. According to the eighth-century chronicler the Venerable Bede, Cuthbert carried out an all-night prayer vigil while up to his neck in the ocean, and when he emerged from the water, sea otters came and warmed his feet with their breath [see illustration on following page]. But it was owing to circumstances following his death that Cuthbert attained his sainthood. According to Bede, the monks exhumed Cuthbert eleven years after his death, to enshrine his bones for veneration, and found his corpse had not undergone any decay. Cuthbert's body, kept on display at Holy Island, became a magnet for pilgrims until repeated Viking raids, beginning late in the eighth century, made the monks quit their monastery around 875. The monks took Cuthbert with them to the mainland, and traveled with his remains for more than a hundred years until he could be laid to rest at Durham Cathedral in England.

Ray delighted not only in those tales, but also in the plants he found on Holy Island, such as German madwort, an herb with hairy leaves and delicate blue flowers. When not plant hunting, he spent his time examining the island's geology. In this he collaborated with his traveling companion, Thomas Willisel, the Royal Society's official collector of minerals, flora, and fauna, and probably England's first professional field naturalist. The two men "gathered on the sea-shore under the town, those stones which they call St. Cuthbert's beads." The "beads," which ranged in size from the diameter of a pea to that of a half dollar, were the ridged and perforated fossil disks of stalked crinoids, or sea lilies.

RAY AND WILLISEL probably found the beads on the northeastern part of Lindisfarne, amid the limestone quarries mined since the fourteenth century for building material and lime plaster. The base of the island is part of the Carboniferous Middle Limestone Group, a geological stratum laid down between 363 million and 325 million years ago. At that time the region that would become northern England was near the Earth's equator, and was covered with warm, shallow seas. The ancient sea bed had thronged with the sea lilies, echinoderms related to starfish and sea urchins. They persist today, though with far less diversity.

While some crinoids, called "feather stars," are mobile and free-swimming, a sea lily's base is stuck to the seafloor, and from it grows a flexible stem supporting a head, or calyx. …

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