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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Cambrian Explosion Month #04: Phylum Ctenophora (And Petalonamae?)

Much like the sponges, the ctenophores (commonly known as “comb jellies”), are one of the oldest animal lineages, but their exact position in the evolutionary family tree is a little uncertain. Traditionally they’re placed between sponges and all other animals, as the earliest branch of the eumetazoans, but some studies have suggested that they might be much more ancient, possibly branching off before even the sponges did.

And while their fossil record is poor due to their soft gelatinous bodies, some of what we do have is starting to hint that their ancestry was very different from their modern jellyfish-like representatives – and they might even have links to some weird Precambrian creatures.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #03: Phylum …Porifera?

Sponges were major reef builders during the Cambrian Explosion, and for the first half of the Cambrian Period the dominant reef-forming group were the bizarre archaeocyathans.

Although their reign was geologically short, lasting only about 15 million years, these tiny calcified sponges were incredibly numerous and diverse during that time, with hundreds of different species known from warm shallow marine waters all around the world. They came in a huge range of shapes, including cups, cones, funnels, towers, and irregular blobs, and were so weird that they weren’t even properly recognized as being sponges until the 1990s.

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Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #21 – Ancient Aquatic Aliens

Found only in the Carboniferous-aged Bear Gulch Limestone (~318 mya) in Montana, USA, Typhloesus wellsi is such a confusing animal that it’s been nicknamed “the alien goldfish”.

It was one of the first body fossils found containing conodont elements, leading to it initially being identified in the 1970s as the then-unknown conodont animal – until actual conodont animals were discovered a few years later, looking nothing like it. The elements were reassessed as actually being Typhloesus’ gut contents, indicating it was actually a conodont-eating predator or scavenger.

Reaching sizes of almost 10cm long (4″), it was vaguely fish-shaped with a pair of ventral fin folds and a stiffened vertical tail paddle. No obvious sensory structures are preserved, but there are impressions of a large gut cavity in the front half of its body, along with a pair of strange unidentified organs known as “ferrodiscus” that contained a high concentration of iron deposits.

And despite being known from over 50 specimens, we still don’t know where to classify it. At all. It lacks evidence of features like gill openings or a notochord that could associate it with chordates. Its gut appears to be a blind sack with no anus, a condition usually seen only in cnidarians and flatworms, and finned active swimmers are known in other invertebrate groups like molluscs and arrow worms, but Typhloesus doesn’t resemble anything like those either.

With the similarly mysterious Tullimonstrum recently getting a lot of attention and a possible identification as a lamprey-relative, perhaps somebody will eventually have another look at this strange little creature, too.

[EDIT: A 2022 study found evidence of a molluscan affinity for Typhloesus!]

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.