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March-April 2009

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The Natural (and Not-So-Natural) History of "Turritella" Agate

Like the Holy Roman Empire, the extinct Irish Elk, and Grape Nuts, “Turritella agate” is not what its name says it is: it is not agate, and it is not made of fossil snails of the marine genus Turritella. This has been realized by professionals and many amateurs for a long time, but the name (and the confusion it promotes) has persisted. For example, in 1947, Hobbies magazine misinformed its readers with the following statement: “Conditions must have been quite different in Wyoming in the days when the turritellas swarmed in a warm sea where high mountains now rise” (Lewis 1947). More recently, a website selling fossils similarly states the following: “Some 40–60 million years ago, an ancient saltwater sea covered what is now Wyoming. A snail of the Turritella species lived in its shallow waters” (
Dr. Warren Allmon is director of the Paleontological Research Institution and a professor of paleontology in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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