500 Million Year-Old Fossils Solve a Centuries-Old Riddle in the

Artist’s Reconstruction of Gangtoucunia Aspera

Artist’s reconstruction of Gangtoucunia aspera as it will have appeared in life on the Cambrian seafloor, circa 514 million years in the past. The particular person within the foreground has a part of the skeleton eliminated to indicate the comfortable polyp contained in the skeleton. Credit: Reconstruction by Xiaodong Wang

Scientists have lastly solved a centuries-old riddle within the evolution of life on earth, revealing what the primary animals to make skeletons appeared like. This discovery was doable on account of an exceptionally well-preserved assortment of fossils found in jap Yunnan Province, China. The outcomes of the analysis had been revealed on November 2 within the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

During an occasion referred to as the Cambrian Explosion round 550-520 million years in the past, the primary animals to construct onerous and strong skeletons seem all of a sudden within the fossil file in a geological blink of a watch. Many of those early fossils are easy hole tubes starting from a couple of millimeters to many centimeters in size. However, what kind of animals made these skeletons was virtually fully unknown, as a result of they lack preservation of the comfortable components wanted to determine them as belonging to main teams of animals which might be nonetheless alive at the moment.

Gangtoucunia aspera Diagram

Fossil specimen (left) and diagram (proper) of Gangtoucunia aspera preserving comfortable tissues, together with the intestine and tentacle. Credit: Luke Parry and Guangxu Zhang

Four specimens of Gangtoucunia aspera with comfortable tissues nonetheless intact, together with the intestine and mouthparts, are included within the new assortment of 514 million-year-old fossils. These reveal that this species had a mouth fringed with a hoop of clean, unbranched tentacles about 5 mm (0.2 inches) lengthy. It’s probably that these had been used to sting and seize prey, reminiscent of small arthropods. The fossils additionally present that Gangtoucunia had a blind-ended intestine (open solely at one finish), partitioned into inside cavities, that stuffed the size of the tube.

These are options discovered at the moment solely in fashionable jellyfish, anemones, and their shut family members (generally known as cnidarians), organisms whose comfortable components are extraordinarily uncommon within the fossil file. The examine reveals that these easy animals had been among the many first to construct the onerous skeletons that make up a lot of the identified fossil file.

According to the researchers, Gangtoucunia would have appeared just like fashionable scyphozoan jellyfish polyps, with a tough tubular construction anchored to the underlying substrate. The tentacle mouth would have prolonged outdoors the tube, however may have been retracted contained in the tube to keep away from predators. Unlike dwelling jellyfish polyps, nevertheless, the tube of Gangtoucunia was manufactured from calcium phosphate, a tough mineral that makes up our personal tooth and bones. Use of this materials to construct skeletons has turn out to be extra uncommon amongst animals over time.

Gangtoucunia aspera Mouth Region

Close up {photograph} of the mouth area of Gangtoucunia aspera exhibiting the tentacles that may have been used to seize prey. Credit: Luke Parry and Guangxu Zhang

Corresponding writer Dr. Luke Parry, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, said: “This really is a one-in-million discovery. These mysterious tubes are often found in groups of hundreds of individuals, but until now they have been regarded as ‘problematic’ fossils, because we had no way of classifying them. Thanks to these extraordinary new specimens, a key piece of the evolutionary puzzle has been put firmly in place.”

The new specimens clearly demonstrate that Gangtoucunia was not related to annelid worms (earthworms, polychaetes and their relatives) as had been previously suggested for similar fossils. It is now clear that Gangtoucunia’s body had a smooth exterior and a gut partitioned longitudinally, whereas annelids have segmented bodies with transverse partitioning of the body.

The fossil was found at a site in the Gaoloufang section in Kunming, eastern Yunnan Province, China. Here, anaerobic (oxygen-poor) conditions limit the presence of bacteria that normally degrade soft tissues in fossils.

Gangtoucunia aspera Fossils

Fossil specimen of Gangtoucunia aspera preserving soft tissues, including the gut and tentacles (left and middle). The drawing at the right illustrates the visible anatomical features in the fossil specimens. Credit: Luke Parry and Guangxu Zhang

PhD student Guangxu Zhang, who collected and discovered the specimens, said: “The first time I discovered the pink soft tissue on top of a Gangtoucunia tube, I was surprised and confused about what they were. In the following month, I found three more specimens with soft tissue preservation, which was very exciting and made me rethink the affinity of Gangtoucunia. The soft tissue of Gangtoucunia, particularly the tentacles, reveals that it is certainly not a priapulid-like worm as previous studies suggested, but more like a coral, and then I realised that it is a cnidarian.”

Although the fossil clearly shows that Gangtoucunia was a primitive jellyfish, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that other early tube-fossil species looked very different. From Cambrian rocks in Yunnan province, the research team has previously found well-preserved tube fossils that could be identified as priapulids (marine worms), lobopodians (worms with paired legs, closely related to arthropods today), and annelids.

Co-corresponding author Xiaoya Ma (Yunnan University and University of Exeter) said: “A tubicolous mode of life seems to have become increasingly common in the Cambrian, which might be an adaptive response to increasing predation pressure in the early Cambrian. This study demonstrates that exceptional soft-tissue preservation is crucial for us to understand these ancient animals.”

Reference: “Exceptional soft tissue preservation reveals a cnidarian affinity for a Cambrian phosphatic tubicolous enigma” by Guangxu Zhang, Luke A. Parry, Jakob Vinther and Xiaoya Ma, 2 November 2022, Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.
DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2022.1623

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