During the ages of the Ordovician, life made great advances. Types already present branched widely into new genera and species, and new and higher types appeared.
Sponges continued from the Cambrian. Graptolites now reached their climax.
Stromatopora—colonies of minute hydrozoans allied to corals—grew in places on the sea floor, secreting stony masses composed of thin, close, concentric layers, connected by vertical rods. The Stromatopora are among the chief limestone builders of the Silurian and Devonian periods.
Corals developed along several distinct lines, like modern corals they secreted a calcareous framework, in whose outer portions the polyps lived. In the Ordovician, corals were represented chiefly by the family of the CHOETETES, all species of which are long since extinct. The description of other types of corals will be given under the Silurian, where they first became abundant.
ECHINODERMS. The cystoid reaches its climax, but there appear now two higher types of echinoderms,—the crinoid and the starfish. The crinoid, named from its resemblance to the lily, is like the cystoid in many respects, but has a longer stem and supports a crown of plumose arms. Stirring the water with these arms, it creates currents by which particles of food are wafted to its mouth. Crinoids are rare at the present time, but they grew in the greatest profusion in the warm Ordovician seas and for long ages thereafter. In many places the sea floor was beautiful with these graceful, flowerlike forms, as with fields of long-stemmed lilies. Of the higher, free-moving classes of the echinoderms, starfish are more numerous than in the Cambrian, and sea urchins make their appearance in rare archaic forms.
Crustaceans. Trilobites now reach their greatest development and more than eleven hundred species have been described from the rocks of this period. It is interesting to note that in many species the segments of the thorax have now come to be so shaped that they move freely on one another. Unlike their Cambrian ancestors, many of the Ordovician trilobites could roll themselves into balls at the approach of danger. It is in this attitude, taken at the approach of death, that trilobites are often found in the Ordovician and later rocks. The gigantic crustaceans called the eurypterids were also present in this period.
The arthropods had now seized upon the land. Centipedes and insects of a low type, the earliest known land animals, have been discovered in strata of this system.
BRYOZOANS. No fossils are more common in the limestones of the time than the small branching stems and lacelike mats of the bryozoans,—the skeletons of colonies of a minute animal allied in structure to the brachiopod.
Brachiopods. These multiplied greatly, and in places their shells formed thick beds of coquina. They still greatly surpassed the mollusks in numbers.