Cambrian Explosion Month #17: Phylum(?) Vetulicolia & Other Early Deuterostome Weirdos

Vetulicolians were a group of odd Cambrian animals known from between about 520 and 505 million years ago. The front half of their bodies were large and streamlined, with a prominent mouth, no eyes, and five pairs of openings that seem to have been gills, with some species having a rigid exoskeleton-like carapace. Their back half was slender, segmented, and flexible, and functioned as a tail for swimming, giving them an overall appearance like alien tadpoles.

Their evolutionary affinities have been problematic for a long time, but evidence of a notochord in some specimens suggest they were probably related to the chordates in some way. Sometimes they’re considered to represent their own phylum, but they might also be stem-chordates or stem-tunicates.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #13: Phylum Echinodermata – Sticking Around

It seems like echinoderms became five-way symmetric incredibly quickly following the group’s first appearances in the early Cambrian. We don’t really know why this secondary radial symmetry evolved in the group – but we do know that the common ancestors of all modern pentaradial echinoderms were suspension-feeding animals that lived attached to the sea floor.

And those ancestors were probably a group called the edrioasteroids.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #12: Phylum Echinodermata – Radial Revolution

While many of the earliest echinoderms had bizarre asymmetrical forms, at some point members of their lineage adopted radial symmetry instead – a development that would eventually lead to the familiar five-way symmetry of most modern species.

And they may have transitioned to that via three-way symmetry.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #11: Phylum Echinodermata – Increasing Asymmetry

During their early evolution, echinoderms started developing unusual asymmetric body plans – and some of them were so strange-looking that for a while it wasn’t clear if they even were echinoderms.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #10: Phylum Echinodermata – Bilateral Origins

Modern echinoderms typically have five-way radial symmetry as adults, and don’t at all resemble other deuterostomes – but their larvae give away their ancestry, still retaining bilateral traits and only developing radial symmetry when they mature and metamorphose.

The earliest definite echinoderms are known from the early Cambrian, about 525 million years ago, which seems to be around the point when early members of the group first developed biomineralized skeletons and became much more likely to fossilize. However, they must have an evolutionary history going back further than that, and molecular clock estimates suggest their last common ancestry with their closest relatives the hemichordates was in the Ediacaran about 570 million years ago.

For a long time the transition from bilateral to radial symmetry was a mystery, but various fossil discoveries are starting to reveal how this unique group of animals evolved.

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Heckerites

While most modern echinoderms display the group’s characteristic five-way symmetry, there were plenty of much much stranger-looking forms back during the Paleozoic.

And some of the most confusing of them were the paracrinoids, which evolved an incredibly diverse range of body shapes during their group’s relatively short 40 million year existence during the Ordovician.

Despite the name these echinoderms weren’t particularly closely related to true crinoids, instead being part of a completely extinct lineage known as the blastozoans. Their ancestors had been radially symmetric, but paracrinoids largely abandoned that body plan, instead developing irregularly shaped and often asymmetric bodies ranging from round to flattened. They had between two and five “food grooves” on their upper surfaces, derived from the ambulacra, lined with numerous feeding appendages along only the left side of each.

They were shallow-water animals, living either attached to the seafloor by a long stem or anchored into the sediment by a shorter one, suspension feeding with their appendages and transporting the food particles towards the mouth located between the bases of the food grooves.

(…And speaking of mouths, some paracrinoid species appear to have had two of them.)

Heckerites multistellatus here lived around 458-445 million years ago, during the Late Ordovician. It inhabited the then-subtropical seas of the Baltica region, with fossil material known from what is now Estonia, southeastern Norway, and northwest Russia.

About 10cm tall (4″), it lived on the seafloor in sheltered waters protected from strong waves by large reefs, and is unusual even among its weirdo relatives for features such as retaining feeding appendages on both sides of its food grooves – although irregularly arranged and with fewer on one side than the other. Its body was shaped rather like a flattened bean, with two food grooves diverging from roughly the centre of the top margin, chunky skeletal plates forming a border around its edges, and a short stem at is base.

It also had an unusually large “anal pyramid” on the opposite side of its body from its mouth, and this may have been used for respiration as well as waste expulsion, similar to modern sea cucumbers.

Sollasina cthulhu

Ophiocistioids were a group of weird and poorly-understood echinoderms which lived between the early Ordovician and the late Triassic, about 475 to 233 million years ago. Related to modern sea cucumbers, they were squat dome-shaped creatures with clusters of tentacle-like scaly tube feet, and have been compared to the bizarre fictional monsters of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

So it’s not really surprising that one of them has been named Sollasina cthulhu.

But unlike its namesake this “monster” was actually tiny, only 3cm across (1.2″). It was discovered in the fine-grained Wenlock limestones of the UK, and dates to the late Silurian, about 430 million years ago. Its exceptionally well-preserved state makes it the first ophiocistioid with known fossilized internal structures, including evidence of its water vascular system.

Unfortunately this high level of detail comes at a cost — the tiny Wenlock fossils are preserved in three dimensions inside hard concretions and are almost impossible to extract or interpret from split-open cross-sections, and highly expensive CT scans don’t give a good enough resolution. So the only way to actually “see” them is to destroy them, grinding away a tiny layer at a time and taking a photograph at each step, then assembling a digital reconstruction from the hundreds of slices.

Syringocrinus

Syringocrinus paradoxicus from the Upper Ordovician of North America (~450 mya). Measuring up to around 6cm long (2.3″), it was part of an extinct group of marine animals known as solutes – characterized by irregularly-shaped bodies covered in calcite armor plates, the structure of which suggest they were echinoderms despite their complete lack of any proper symmetry.

It had two appendages, one a short “arm” that was probably used for feeding on food particles suspended in the water, and the other forming a longer stalk-like “tail” that may have served to propel it along the seafloor.

Solutes were once thought to be closely related to the equally weird-looking stylophorans, but some versions of the echinoderm family tree place them much further apart, suggesting their superficial similarities may have been due to convergent evolution instead.