While some radiodonts were the largest animals of their time periods, Stanleycaris hirpex here was one of the smallest known members of the group – although at around 10cm long (~4″) it was still respectably big compared to most other Cambrian animals.
Discovered in the Canadian Burgess Shale deposits (~508 million years ago), it was originally known only from isolated frontal appendages and mouthparts, and had been assumed to be a fairly typical member of the hurdiid family. But the recent discovery of over 200 new fossils, including some exceptionally well-preserved full body specimens, has catapulted it directly from being poorly-known into now being one of the most completely known of all radiodonts.
And it had a very big surprise for us, right in the middle of its face.
It turns out that Stanleycaris had a huge third eye, unlike anything ever seen in a radiodont before. A large unpaired eye was also part of the five-eyed arrangement in opabiniids and Kylinxia, and finding a similar example in radiodonts too raises the possibility that this sort of well-developed “median eye” may have been more widespread in early arthropods than previously thought.
Along with the third eye, some of the Stanleycaris specimens preserve fine internal details of its nervous system and show that its brain was made up of two segments instead of the three seen in modern arthropods. It also had gills positioned on its underside, unlike most other radiodonts which had them on their backs.
Ever since the bizarre anatomy of Opabinia was first recognized in the 1970s, it’s been a persistently unique “weird wonder” of the Cambrian period. Over the decades we’ve figured out that it was an early type of arthropod in an evolutionary position between lobopodians and radiodonts, but this whole time it’s still been sitting there alone as the only known representative of a weird stem-lineage with no other known close relatives.
Only about 3cm long (1.2″), Utaurora had 15 pairs of swimming flaps along the sides of its body, and a tail region with a 7-part fan and a pair of serrated spines. Hair-like gill blades covered both its back and the bases of its swimming flaps, and although its head region was poorly preserved it probably had an arrangement of 5 eyes and a long flexible claw-tipped proboscis similar to that of Opabinia.
Its discovery extends both the geographical and temporal known range of opabiniids, and suggests that their continued scarcity in other Cambrian fossil sites compared to other soft-bodied arthropods may simply be because they were just incredibly rare animals in those habitats at the time.
The most famous radiodont is the classic charismatic Anomalocaris, but there were plenty of other members of the group who explored very different lifestyles. Instead of big apex predators, some of them became equally large filter feeders – the whales of the Cambrian.
Once the dinocaridids started exploring active swimming lifestyles, one branch of this group quickly became incredibly successful and diverse: the radiodonts. With muscular swimming flaps, head carapaces, stalked compound eyes, disc-like mouths, and large spiny front appendages, they occupied a wide range of ecological roles – and some of them went on to became giants, some of the largest animals of their time.
They were some of the closest relatives to the ancestors of the true arthropods (or “euarthropods”). And while the earliest radiodont fossils are known from about 518 million years ago, much like other panarthropods their actual evolutionary origins have to go back much deeper into the early Cambrian since they already lived alongside representatives of various early euarthropod groups.
During the Cambrian explosion, a time full of incredibly weird-looking evolutionary experiments, Opabinia regalis was one of the weirdest of all – so ridiculous, in fact, that when its anatomy was first revealed at a presentation the audience laughed.
Known from the mid-CambrianBurgess Shale fossil deposits in Canada, this bizarre creature lived around 508 million years ago and had a body measuring just 4-7cm long (~1.5-2.75″).
It had five stalked eyes on its head, and a long flexible proboscis that resembled a vacuum cleaner hose ending in a pincer-like grasping structure. Its mouth was located on the bottom of its head, behind the base of its proboscis, and the opening pointed backwards forming a U-bend in its digestive tract.
The rest of its segmented body had overlapping swimming lobes and a tail fan, and small triangular structures that may have been legs on its underside.
It was probably a bottom-feeding predator or a detritvore, swimming along above the seafloor using its proboscis to snatch up small soft prey or organic material and passing it up to its mouth.
It also seems to have been a fairly rare member of the Burgess Shale ecosystem, with less than 50 specimens known from the thousands of fossils found there.
For a while Opabinia was thought to represent a completely new phylum, but after further discoveries of similar animals like Anomalocaris it’s now considered to be a “stem-arthropod”, a close evolutionary cousin to modern insects, arachnids, myriapods, and crustaceans. Its exact relationships with other stem-arthropods are still being debated, however, and some studies suggest its closest living relatives may actually be tardigrades.