Cambrian Explosion Month #07: Phylum Cnidaria – The Weird Ones

Odd shell-like structures that resemble angular ribbed cones with four-way symmetry appear in the fossil record starting around the mid-to-late Cambrian (with a possible Ediacaran record).

Known as conulariids, these fossils are so distinctive and different from anything else that for a long time their evolutionary affinities were unknown, and they were considered to be a “problematic” group. But in recent years they’ve been identified as being cnidarians, generally thought to be close relatives of modern stalked jellyfish.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #06: Phylum Cnidaria – Medusozoa

 The medusozoans are a group of cnidarians that includes modern true jellyfish, box jellyfish, stalked jellyfish, hydrozoans, and the weird fish egg parasite Polypodium.

Due to their soft gelatinous bodies their fossil record is very sparse. While vague fossilized blobs tend get interpreted as jellyfish fairly often, many of them turn out to be trace fossils or inorganic structures, and definite preserved medusae are only found in a few sites of exceptional preservation.

Among those rare examples of fossil jellies there are some amazingly well-preserved specimens known from the mid-Cambrian, discovered in the Marjum Formation in Utah, USA (~505 million years ago).

Cambrian Narcomedusae, Cubozoa, and Semaeostomeae

None of these species have been given their own names, and they’re all tiny, only around 1cm in diameter (0.4″). But their anatomy is still preserved in enough detail to tentatively classify them into known lineages, including the box jelly, narcomedusan, and semaeostomean shown here.

Much larger Cambrian jellyfish have been also found in Death Valley, California, and in Wisconscin, representing preserved mass stranding events on ancient shorelines. Some of these jellies were up to about 50cm in diameter (20″), indicating that large soft-bodied animals were much more common in Cambrian seas than previously thought.

Cambrian Explosion Month #05: Phylum Cnidaria – Anthozoa

Cnidarians are a diverse group that includes modern corals, sea anemones, sea pens, jellyfish, hydra, and even some parasitic forms. They’re the closest relatives of bilaterians in the animal evolutionary tree, and their ancestry goes back at least 560 million years into the Ediacaran Period, with the polyp-like Haootia being one of the earliest definite cnidarian fossils – and molecular clock estimates suggest the group might have actually originated much much earlier than that, possibly as much as 740 million years ago.

The anthozoan lineage of cnidarians (corals, anemones, and sea pens) spend their adult lives as polyps attached to the seafloor, either solitary or colonial, and since many lineages have hard calcium carbonate skeletons their fossil record is generally much better than that of the soft-bodied medusozoan jellyfish.

While corals are major contributors to reef ecosystems in modern times, back during the Cambrian they were actually rather rare. The weird little archaeocyathan sponges were the main reef-builders in the early-to-mid Cambrian, and after their decline reefs were mainly formed by algae and other types of sponges.

But, sometimes, growing among these reefs were also some tiny Cambrian corals.

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