Scientists have uncovered the fossilized remains of an ancient sea creature that lived 520 million years ago. The South China discovery of the fuxianhuiid specimen represents one of the earliest animal fossils ever found.
Perhaps even more unique is the state of preservation the creature was found in, allowing scientists an unprecedented glimpse at the oldest nervous system to reach beyond the head in fossil record. The discovery is also one of the earliest examples of feeding limbs in evolutionary history.
According to Live Science, fuxianhuiid belongs to the arthropod family, known to be the first animals to have jointed limbs that enabled them to crawl. Fuxianhuiid was soft-bodied and covered by a carapace, a hard shell which covered its head.
The South China discovery is the first fuxianhuiid to be found preserved in a position which allowed scientists to see the exact nature of what lay beneath its protective covering. The new find provides confirmation that the creature had a series of limbs beneath its head that were used for feeding purposes.
The fuxianhuiid used a process scientists refer to as “detritus sweep-feeding,” in which the creature used its limbs to shovel sediment from the seafloor into its mouth.
Javier Ortega-Hernández, from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, led the excavation in a fossil-rich region of southwest China known as Xiaoshiba. Ortega-Hernández spoke about the discovery in a statement:
“Since biologists rely heavily on organization of head appendages to classify arthropod groups, such as insects and spiders, our study provides a crucial reference point for reconstructing the evolutionary history and relationships of the most diverse and abundant animals on Earth. This is as early as we can currently see into arthropod limb development.”
“These fossils are our best window to see the most primitive state of animals as we know them – including us. Before that there is no clear indication in the fossil record of whether something was an animal or a plant — but we are still filling in the details, of which this is an important one.”
[Image by Yie Jang Yie and Javier Ortega-Hernández]