Cambrian Explosion Month #31: Phylum Brachiopoda

While modern brachiopods superficially resemble clams, they’re not actually very closely related to each other. Clams are bivalve molluscs, related to snails and squid, while brachiopods are lophophorates related to bryozoans and horseshoe worms.

Their two shell valves are also arranged very differently – while bivalve shells originate from the left and right sides of their bodies, brachiopods grow theirs on the top and bottom.

They first appear in the fossil record in the early Cambrian, about 530 million years ago, but they may have actually diverged from a tommotiid-like ancestor as far back as the late Ediacaran. Only around 300 species survive today, but during the Paleozoic they were some of the most abundant filter-feeding and reef-building animals with tens of thousands of fossil species known. Different species tended to have strict habitat and temperature preferences, and so their fossils are also useful indicators of how ancient climates changed over time.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #30: Phylum(?) Hyolitha

Hyoliths were a group of small shelled animals that first appeared in the fossil record just after the start of the Cambrian, about 536 million years ago. They had conical calcareous shells with a lid-like operculum, and some species also featured long curling spines that made them look like ice-cream cones with mammoth tusks.

They were so odd that for a long time their evolutionary relationships were unknown. They were generally accepted to be lophotrochozoans, but some studies considered them to be part of their own unique phylum while others tended to place them as being closely related to molluscs.

It wasn’t until 2017 that well-preserved soft tissue fossils revealed a tentacled feeding structure that resembled a lophophore – and hyoliths finally found their place in the lophotrochozoan family tree as close relatives of brachiopods and horseshoe worms, possibly even being a stem lineage within the brachiopod phylum.

However, this isn’t universally accepted and some recent studies continue to dispute it. The feeding organ of a different hyolith fossil has been interpreted as not being a lophophore, classifying the group as an early lophotrochozoan stem lineage, while an analysis of shell microstructure has instead suggested realigning them with molluscs. I’m grouping them with brachiopods here, but future discoveries might still make this obsolete.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #29: Phylum Phoronida & Early Brachiozoans

The last group we’re looking at this month are the brachiozoans, a lineage that includes modern horseshoe worms and brachiopods along with the extinct hyoliths.

Horseshoe worms, or phoronids, are represented by about 15 living species and are usually considered to be their own phylum, but some analyses classify them as a sub-group of brachiopods instead. Like other lophophorates they have a “crown” of filter-feeding tentacles around their mouths, and similarly to some bryozoans they build protective chitinous tubes around their bodies.

There are no definite body fossils of phoronids at all, although there are a few possible trace fossils of their tubes and the enigmatic fossil hederelloids might be related to them.

But some Cambrian fossils might give us a hint about their evolutionary history.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #28: Phylum …Entoprocta?

The only Cambrian fossil species that seems to be closely related to the entoprocts is Cotyledion, but there are several other enigmatic animals that have also been tentatively allied with the group as members of early stem lineages.

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Cambrian Explosion Month #27: Phylum Ectoprocta & Phylum Entoprocta

Ectoprocts, common known as bryozoans or “moss animals”, are aquatic lophotrochozoans that usually live in colonies made up of many tiny cloned zooids. The exoskeletons they build for their colonies have a range of forms, including gelatinous blobs, chitinous branches, and calcified sheets and coral-like fronds.

They’re part of a sub-group of lophotrochozoans called lophophorates, closely related to brachiopods and horseshoe worms, and are characterized by having a ring or U-shaped “crown” of filter-feeding tentacles around their mouths.

Mineralized bryozoans have an extensive fossil record going back to the early Ordovician, about 481 million years ago, but they’re surprisingly absent from the Cambrian – with one possible exception.

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