Researchers unravel fossil's family tree
Published Wednesday, July 31, 2013 12:33PM MDT Last Updated Wednesday, July 31, 2013 2:02PM MDT
A group of scientists is examining Hallucigenia sparsa from the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park and has discovered that the little, worm-like animal had relatives all over the world.
The Burgess Shale is home to one of the globe’s first complex marine ecosystems and is known for its bizarre marine animal fossils.
A team from the Royal Ontario Museum and universities of Toronto and Cambridge has been studying the spiny little creature and in a paper published on Wednesday, suggests that Hallucigenia had relatives around the world.
The Hallucigenia is a rare animal and has numerous pairs of soft walking legs and was discovered more than a century ago.
In 1977, it was restudied by renowned palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris because of its "bizarre and dream-like quality," much like a hallucination.
The animal is one of the Burgess Shale’s most recognizable creatures and has long been a topic of discussion among scientists who are trying to better understand how it lived and where it came from.
Scientists now have new high-tech tools to help them with their research and upon reexamination, found that the Hallucigenia specimens defensive spines strongly resemble a group of small, isolated spiny elements that are found in other countries.
“Hallucigenia bears a striking resemblance to its modern relatives, the velvet worms, which live in fallen logs in jungles throughout the world, though Hallucigenia long precedes the earliest forests, or indeed the earliest life on land,” said Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum “Despite this difference in habitats, the Cambrian forms were probably micropredators or scavengers like their modern counterparts and probably filled similar ecological roles.”
The team believes these characteristics are sufficient to suggest that the small isolated spines were related to Hallucigenia and formed a group of animals that spanned the planet’s ancient Cambrian seafloors.
“From Canada to the United States, China to Mongolia, and the United Kingdom to Australia, we now know that during the Cambrian period Hallucigenia had relatives all over the world”, said Dr. Caron. “This study shows that because spines were more resistant to decay, they could actually preserve more readily in many conventional fossil deposits but it is only in exceptional sites like the Burgess Shale that we find complete articulated specimens with spines attached to the rest of these delicate soft-bodied animals.”
Dr. Martin Smith from the University of Cambridge is a co-author of the study and says the results of the study “provide an unrivalled insight into the evolution and ecology of the earliest complex animals."
The paper was published on Wednesday in the prestigious British scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
For more information on Hallucigenia, visit the Burgess Shale website.