Scientists finally figure out what that mysterious bug-eyed ancient creature was all about
Neither shrimp nor vertebrate, Nectocaris pteryx was actually a type of mollusk.
It's not the mythical kraken, but an ancient creature belonging to the largest, nimblest and probably smartest group of invertebrates has jumped out of the fossil record with a different identity than previously thought. That finding restructures a branch on the evolutionary tree.Skip to next paragraph
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The tiny mysterious fossil of Nectocaris pteryx — previously described as a shrimp with a chordate tail — is neither a shrimp (an arthropod) nor a chordate (vertebrates and their nearest relatives), but a mollusk, according to a new study detailed in the May 27 issue of the journal Nature.
Don't picture boring mollusks, such as snails, slugs and mussels, however. Think cuttlefish, squid, and octopi — and yes, even the kraken — which are cephalopods, a member of the mollusk phylum. The 505 million-year-old creature is the oldest recorded cephalopod by about 10 to 15 million years and provides clues about modern cephalopod evolution.
Nectocaris is a miniscule cephalopod at only 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7 centimeters) long. It looks like a cartoon character from a Pixar movie with its bulging eyes and funnel-shaped nozzle that squirts water where one would expect a nose.
Researchers acquired 91 new specimens of Nectocaris from the well-known fossil hunters' playground called the Burgess Shale, which contains fossil beds surrounded by mountains in British Columbia, Canada. The Burgess Shale is filled with pristine soft-bodied animal fossils — those ancient animals without a shell that have largely eluded paleontologists because they rarely fossilize — from the Cambrian period between 542 million and 490 million years ago.
Scientists pulled the Nectocaris specimens, originally acquired in the 1980s, off the shelves of the Royal Ontario Museum and completed the most detailed analysis of this species, courtesy of several complete fossils of side-on and top-down views of the creature.