Weird Heads Month #26: Curious Cambrian Creatures

During the Cambrian explosion, a time full of incredibly weird-looking evolutionary experiments, Opabinia regalis was one of the weirdest of all – so ridiculous, in fact, that when its anatomy was first revealed at a presentation the audience laughed.

Known from the mid-Cambrian Burgess Shale fossil deposits in Canada, this bizarre creature lived around 508 million years ago and had a body measuring just 4-7cm long (~1.5-2.75″).

It had five stalked eyes on its head, and a long flexible proboscis that resembled a vacuum cleaner hose ending in a pincer-like grasping structure. Its mouth was located on the bottom of its head, behind the base of its proboscis, and the opening pointed backwards forming a U-bend in its digestive tract.

The rest of its segmented body had overlapping swimming lobes and a tail fan, and small triangular structures that may have been legs on its underside.

It was probably a bottom-feeding predator or a detritvore, swimming along above the seafloor using its proboscis to snatch up small soft prey or organic material and passing it up to its mouth. 

It also seems to have been a fairly rare member of the Burgess Shale ecosystem, with less than 50 specimens known from the thousands of fossils found there.

For a while Opabinia was thought to represent a completely new phylum, but after further discoveries of similar animals like Anomalocaris it’s now considered to be a “stem-arthropod”, a close evolutionary cousin to modern insects, arachnids, myriapods, and crustaceans. Its exact relationships with other stem-arthropods are still being debated, however, and some studies suggest its closest living relatives may actually be tardigrades.

Thanahita

Thanahita distos, a recently-named species from the mid-Silurian of the UK (~430 mya).

This little lobopodian was very closely related to the famous Cambrian Hallucigenia, but it lived over 70 million years later – giving us the first evidence that these weird worms weren’t just short-lived “evolutionary experiments”, but must have actually been a very successful lineage that thrived for quite a long time.

Measuring around 3.5cm long (1.4″), it had seven pairs of legs tipped with one or two claws each, and at least two pairs of shorter tentacles on its neck. The head region of the only known fossil specimen wasn’t preserved, so it’s unclear exactly what its front end looked like – but it would have probably been quite similar to Hallucigenia with a slender oval head, two simple eyes, and a small round mouth ringed by tiny teeth.

Unlike its spiky relative, however, Thanahita’s back was covered in rows of numerous small raised soft-tissue “tufts”. I’ve reconstructed it here with them brightly warning colored, mimicking stinging coral polyps.