Chaetognaths, commonly known as arrow worms, are a major component of marine planktonic ecosystems all around the world. They’re a fairly small phylum in terms of diversity, with only about 120 known modern species, but in sheer numbers of individuals they’re incredibly abundant – making up as much as 15% of total zooplankton biomass worldwide. They play an important role as predators, feeding on things like copepods, fish larvae, and each other, and can be so voracious that they’re sometimes nicknamed “tigers of the zooplankton”.
And they’ve been doing it for a very long time.
The appearance of protoconodont “teeth” at the start of the Cambrian (~541 million years ago) suggests that arrow-worm-like gnathiferans were some of the first active swimming planktonic predators – taking advantage of ecosystems that were becoming increasingly complex around that time, and laying the early foundations for more modern-style marine food chains.
Unfortunately we don’t know much about their evolutionary origins, with their small fragile soft bodies leaving only a very patchy fossil record. Their relationship to other animals was also rather enigmatic for a long time, and they were only very recently identified as being part of the gnathiferans.
But their ancestors may have been something like Dakorhachis thambus.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion Month #19: Phylum Chaetognatha”
Protostomes are the other major evolutionary branch of bilaterian animals, and by far the most numerous with over a million known modern species (and probably several times more than that still undiscovered). This lineage is distinguished from the deuterostomes based on both embryo development and genetic studies, with the two groups estimated to have shared a common worm-like ancestor sometime back in the Ediacaran Period.
For the rest of this month we’ll be featuring the spiralians, a branch of the protostomes that includes modern annelid worms, molluscs, and brachiopods. Meanwhile their cousins the ecdysozoans will be the focus of the entire second month of this series, later this summer, due to their incredibly rich Cambrian fossil record.
The earliest spiralians must have diverged from other protostomes more than 558 million years ago, if Kimberella and Namacalathus really were early members of the group, but more definite fossils only appear at the start of the Cambrian (~541 million years ago) with protoconodont “teeth” – once thought to be from early vertebrates, but now recognized as probably being jaw elements from a group of spiralians known as gnathiferans.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion Month #18: Stem-Gnathifera”
Capinatator praetermissus, an arrow worm from the Mid-Cambrian of Canada (~508 mya). Discovered in the famous Burgess Shale fossil deposits, it was one of the earliest known arrow worms and also much larger than most modern forms, measuring around 10cm in length (4″).
Its mouth was surrounded by 50 hooked spines, which could be extended out to grasp onto its prey – probably feeding on whatever smaller animals it could catch – but when not in use these spines would have been kept folded up inside a fleshy “hood” around its head.
It may have been a transitional form between early large-predator arrow worms and the smaller plankton-feeders that the group later became.