Cnidarians – a group of animals that includes modern corals, sea anemones, sea pens, jellyfish, hydra, and a couple of parasitic forms – are one of the most ancient animal lineages, originating at least 580 million years ago in the Ediacaran period.

Actual identifiable fossils of cnidarians that old are incredibly rare, however, and until now there was only one example – the small polyp-like Haootia from Canada.

But a second definite Ediacaran cnidarian has now been described: Auroralumina attenboroughii.

It was discovered in Charnwood Forest, England, in the very same site where the first recognized Precambrian fossils were found in the 1950s. About 20cm tall (~8″) it dates to around 560 million years ago and was made up of a pair of forking stiff-walled tubes which expanded into wide four-sided goblet-like shapes full of stubby tentacles. These densely-tentacled crowns would have been used to capture tiny planktonic organisms from the water around it, making it the current earliest known example of a predatory animal.

The one known fossil specimen has an incomplete base, so it’s uncertain if this was actually the full life appearance of Auroralumina or if it was even larger with more branches and goblets. And although it was preserved in deep-water sediments, it appears to have originated from much shallower waters, being swept down into the depths during a volcanic eruption.

While it superficially resembled a sea anemone, details of its anatomy suggest it was actually much closer related to medusozoans, having similar traits to the immobile polyp stage of the jellyfish life cycle. Its four-way symmetry and boxy shape may also link it to the enigmatic conulariids.

It’s not clear if it was able to bud off swimming medusa stages like its modern relatives – that might be an evolutionary innovation that came along later – but it at least shows that a basic medusozoan body plan was already in place around 20 million years earlier than previously thought.

Cambrian Explosion #32: Rise of the Arthropods

The world of the Cambrian Period was a strange combination of both familiar and alien. The land would have seemed rather barren, populated mainly by microbes and algae, yet the oceans teemed with creatures already identifiable as sponges, comb jellies, jellyfish, acorn worms, vertebrates, echinoderms, arrow worms, annelids, molluscs, and brachiopods – small and primitive-looking in some cases but still recognizable enough.

But at the same time there were “weird wonders” everywhere, things much harder to identify, with shapes so bizarre that their initial discovery was met with laughter.

Animal life was exploring so many different possibilities for body plans and ecologies, and one lineage in particular dominated this explosion of evolutionary experimentation: the arthropods.

Arthropods are represented today by the chelicerates (sea spiders, horseshoe crabs, and arachnids), myriapods (millipedes and centipedes), crustaceans, and insects, and together these groups make up over 80% of all known living animal species and are vital parts of almost every ecosystem on the planet.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #32: Rise of the Arthropods”

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #17 – Enigmatic Ediacarans

Although Precambrian fossils have been known since the mid-1800s, the overwhelming belief among 19th and early 20th century scientists that complex life couldn’t have originated that early meant such discoveries either weren’t taken seriously or were forcibly assigned to a Cambrian age. It wasn’t until the discovery of Charnia in the 1950s that views began to change.

(Or, rather, the second discovery of Charnia, since the schoolgirl who first found it wasn’t taken seriously either.)

Since then, a wide variety of strange soft-bodied fossils have been identified from over 30 different localities around the world, on every continent except Antarctica, dating to ages from over 600 to 542 million years ago. They’re now known as the Ediacaran biota, after the Ediacara Hills in Australia where some of the most famous examples have been found.

A few show possible similarities to known groups, but we still don’t know what sort of lifeforms most of them they actually were. Animals, fungi, algae, foraminifera, microbial colonies, or lichens have all been proposed – but they might also belong to a completely unique kingdom or phylum, a “failed experiment” in multicellular life with no living descendants.

And they’re gradually turning out to be not nearly as “simple” as once thought, showing evidence of their own thriving ecosystems and evolutionary specializations – which makes their sudden disappearance at the end of the Ediacaran Period all the more mysterious.

Tribrachidium has been found in Australia, Ukraine, and Russia (558-555 mya), grew up to 5cm in diameter (2″), and shows unusual tri-radial symmetry. Affinities to both cnidarians and echinoderms have been suggested, but no classification has really stuck. Recent 3D modelling and fluid dynamic studies reveal its shape was adapted to direct water currents into the nooks between its “arms”, allowing it to feed on suspended organic particles.

Yorgia is known from Australia and Russia (~555 mya), and appears to be a transitional form between two other ediacarans, Dickinsonia and Spriggina. It has what appears to be a “head” end with an asymmetrical lobe, and a segmented body in a glide reflection pattern, growing up to 25cm long (10″). Trace fossils from its feeding strategy have also been found – chains of imprints over seafloor microbial mats, where it moved from spot to spot and “grazed” with the entire underside of its body.

Fractofusus is somewhat older (575-560 mya) and perhaps even stranger. Discovered in Canada in 1967, it was known only as “the spindle organism” for 40 years before being finally named in 2007. Its 40cm long form (16″) shows fractal self-similarity, made up of frond-like elements that branch even further again and again and again, creating a large surface area relative to its internal volume that may have been used to directly absorb nutrients from the surrounding seawater. It also seems to have been capable of reproducing in two different ways – producing both water-borne offspring and stolon-like clones of itself.