Soft-bodied annelid worms only very rarely fossilize, so the group’s origins during the Cambrian Period are still rather poorly understood. So far about thirteen different species have been found in sites of exceptional preservation, showing that even very early on in their evolution these worms had already diversified into a wide range of ecologies including bottom-feeders, carnivores, swimmers, tube-builders, and even symbiotes sharing living space with early acorn worms.
Ursactis comosa here adds a fourteenth species to the list. Found in a newly-discovered outcrop of the 508-million-year-old Burgess Shale fossil deposits in western Canada, it’s known from nearly 600 specimens clustered together in several large groups, making it the current best-known and most numerous of all Cambrian annelids.
Up to about 1.5cm long (~0.6″), it was a polychaete-like worm bearing bundles of long bristles. There was a pair of large sensory palps on its head, and its body was made up of an unusually small number of segments – just 10, with larger individuals just increasing the size of their segments instead of adding on additional ones like most modern annelids.
Unlike other Cambrian annelids it also shows some evidence of basic tagmatization, differentiating some of the rear segments of its body with much longer bristles.
The large numbers of Ursactis found preserved in one place suggests these worms were exhibiting some sort of swarming behavior. Since ages from juveniles to fully-grown adults are represented together, and their anatomy indicates they were crawling detritivores, they were probably all taking advantage of a particularly nutrient-rich patch of seafloor at the time they were abruptly buried in a mudslide.
Living during the Cambrian Period about 518 million years ago, Wufengella bengtsonii was discovered in the Chinese Chengjiang fossil deposits and was recently named and described in late 2022.
It was a small worm-like animal about 1.6cm long (~0.6″), with bundles of long bristles along its sides and flap-like structures on its underside. Its back was also covered with sclerite armor arranged in a strangely asymmetrical fashion, with larger overlapping plates in the middle and numerous smaller cap-like sclerites distributed unevenly along each side.
Although its bristles and appendages resemble those of annelid worms, the distinctive structure of the sclerites identifies Wufengella as being a member of the tommotiids – early relatives of modern lophophorates (bryozoans, brachiopods, and horseshoe worms).
Its discovery actually confirms an old prediction that lophophorates probably originated from armored worm-like animals, representing an evolutionary link between earlier free-living annelid-like forms and later immobile filter-feeding tommotiids.
It’s not known why the armor on Wufengella‘s back was so unevenly organized – but some of the later tube-like tommotiids also had weird symmetry going on, with forms like Eccentrotheca having irregular sclerites arranged in a spiral around their bodies.
We’re finally at the end of this series, and to finish off let’s look at one of the few types of Cambrian true crustaceans that are known only from fully mature adults: the skaracarids.
These tiny soft-bodied meiofaunal animals are known from late Cambrian areas of “Orsten-type preservation” in Sweden and South China, with a possible additional fragmentary occurrence in Poland – suggesting that they had a global distribution.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #61: Crustacea – Little Wigglers”
One of the characteristic features of the crustacean lineage are their larval forms, passing through various tiny larval stages. They often look nothing like their eventual adult forms and historically weren’t even recognized as being the same species, with their complex lifecycles not being properly recognized until the late 1800s.
A lot of Cambrian crustaceans are only known from their larvae, preserved in exquisite microscopic detail in sites of “Orsten-type preservation”. Only disarticulated fragments of larger-bodied forms have been found in a few places, and it isn’t until much later in the Paleozoic that fossil crustaceans actually seem to become abundant in marine ecosystems.
It’s not clear why there’s such a bias in their early fossil record compared to most other arthropods, but possibly they were just very very rare animals early on. Adult forms may have mostly lived in places where they just didn’t fossilize, while their tiny larvae sometimes dispersed into different environments with a better chance of preservation.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #60: Crustacea – Larvae Larvae Everywhere”
The majority of known fossils of Cambrian crustaceans are in the form of minuscule microfossils with “Orsten-type preservation” – formed in oxygen-poor seafloor mud and exceptionally well-preserved in three-dimensional detail. They can only be discovered and studied after dissolving away the rock around them with acid and picking through the residue under a microscope, then they’re scanned with an electron microscope to see their fine details.
And it turns out some of these tiny early crustaceans looked really weird.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #59: Stem-Crustacea – Actual Ancient Aliens & Bivalved Buddies”
The pancrustaceans are a grouping of mandibulates that contains all of the crustaceans and hexapods (insects and their closest relatives) along with their various stem-relatives.
They’re critical components of most ecosystems on the planet, and are major parts of the nutrient cycle. In aquatic environments the crustaceans dominate, with modern copepods and krill being some of the most abundant living animals and making up enormous amounts of biomass providing vital food sources for larger animals. On the land springtails and ants are especially numerous, and the air is full of flying insects, the only invertebrates to ever develop powered flight. Some groups of insects have also co-evolved complex mutualistic partnerships with flowering plants and fungi.
Hexapods and insects don’t appear in the fossil record until the early Devonian, but they’re estimated to have first diverged from the crustaceans* in the early Silurian (~440 million years ago), around the same time that vascular plants were colonizing the land.
(* Hexapods are crustaceans in the same sort of way that birds are dinosaurs. They originated from within one of the major crustacean lineages with their closest living relatives possibly being the enigmatic remipedes.)
But crustaceans and their pancrustacean ancestors go back much further into the Cambrian, and we’ll be finishing off this month and this series with some of those early representatives.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #58: Hymenocarina”
What were tuzoiids?
We don’t know.
Despite hundreds of specimens having been found, and around 20 different species being described, these arthropods are an ongoing puzzle.
They’re known from between about 518 and 505 million years ago, in deposits associated with tropical and subtropical regions all around the world. They had large spiny bivalved carapaces up to 18cm long (7″), shaped like an upside-down domed taco shell, with a distinctive reticulated net-like surface ornamentation – but the rest of their ecology and anatomy is very unclear.
Most fossils are just empty carapaces, which appear to have been made of unmineralized chitin. Rare examples of soft-part preservation show they had a pair of stalked eyes sticking out the front, and a pair of short simple antennae, but impressions of the rest of their bodies are fragmentary and indistinct enough to not be particularly helpful.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #57: Tuzoiida”
The euthycarcinoids were a group of euarthropods known from the mid-Cambrian to the mid-Triassic (~500-254 million years ago), surviving through multiple mass extinctions including the devastating “Great Dying” at the end of the Permian that finished off the trilobites. But despite an evolutionary history spanning around 250 million years they have a very sparse fossil record, extremely rare and known from less than 20 species across their entire time range.
For a long time their affinities were uncertain, and they’ve been variously suggested to have been crustaceans, trilobites, or chelicerates, or even to have been a lineage of earlier stem-euarthropods. But since the early 2010s better understanding of their anatomy has placed them in the mandibulates, probably as the closest relatives of the myriapods and helping to close the gap between the aquatic ancestors of that group and their earliest known terrestrial forms.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #56: Euthycarcinoidea”
In the final stretch of this month we finally come to the last of the major groupings of euarthropods: the mandibulates, which include the modern myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) and pancrustaceans (crustaceans and insects), along with several extinct groups.
Characterized by possessing mandible mouthparts, mandibulates are by far the largest lineage of arthropods and the most successful group of animals on Earth. Over a million living species are known (most of of which are insects, particularly beetles) and an estimated six-to-ten times more than that are probably still undiscovered.
Mandibulates probably diverged from their chelicerate cousins around the start of the Cambrian 540 million years ago. If the trilobites and their artiopodan relatives were early or stem-mandibulates then the earliest known fossils of the group are about 521 million years old, otherwise the first records come from a few million years later in the Chinese Chengjiang fossil deposits (~518 million years ago).
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #55: Fuxianhuiida”
Most trilobites were able to roll themselves up into a protective ball – a behavior known as enrollment or volvation – exposing just their heavily armored backs to attackers. They’re often found fossilized curled up like this, and rare preservation of soft tissues shows that they had a complex system of muscles to help them quickly achieve this pose while simultaneously tucking their antennae and all their limbs safely inside their enrolled shells.
Some species also developed sharp defensive spines and spikes that jutted out when they enrolled, making themselves even more daunting to potential predators in one of the earliest known examples of an evolutionary “arms race”.
Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #54: Trilobita – Transform and Roll Up”