Paleontologists have discovered who lived in tubes half a billion years ago

(ORDO NEWS) — The owners of the very first skeletons on Earth lived in peculiar tubes, of which quite a lot has been described.

At the same time, little is known about these animals themselves – now this gap has been filled by soft tissue imprints of Gangtoucunia aspera, a representative of the cnidarian type from the Cambrian period.

Approximately 540 million years ago, the evolution of life on Earth entered a new stage. Hundreds of millions of years of existence of the “planet of microbes”, inhabited exclusively by single-celled creatures, have remained in the past.

Many multicellular animals appeared, many of which were very strange and soon completely died out. Others looked more familiar – these are the distant ancestors of modern systematic groups.

The peak of the development of ancient animals fell on the Cambrian – the first period of the Paleozoic era. It was then that the Cambrian explosion occurred, which changed the population of the Earth’s biosphere beyond recognition and created ecosystems of a new type.

The inhabitants of the seas of the early Paleozoic began to interact much more actively with each other – including eating each other, that is, predatory.

This, as well as the need to avoid mechanical damage, led the ancient creatures to acquire skeletons – hard outer covers.

The earliest skeletons were in the form of a tube, from which only the front of the animal protruded. The most ancient of them (for example, Cloudina sp. ) arose even before the beginning of the Cambrian – in the Ediacaran period.

Later, a variety of animals lived in hard tubes – representatives of the tentacle type , cnidarians, worms, arthropods, and many others. Such, for example, are modern pogonophores or coral polyps.

Paleontologists have found many fossils of ancient pipes, as they are composed of various hard minerals and are well preserved. But the soft tissues of their inhabitants are more difficult to detect, for this you need to find prints that are poorly preserved.

Paleontologists have discovered who lived in tubes half a billion years ago 2
Gangtoucunia aspera print and rendering

This time, scientists were lucky: in the Chinese province of Yunnan , four prints of the Cambrian animal Gangtoucunia aspera were found at once , preserving the shape of its soft tissues.

The age of the finds is approximately 514 million years. G. aspera has been known for a long time: the species is described by calcium phosphate tubes with lateral branches – these are budding young individuals.

At the same time, one could only guess about the internal structure of this creature and its systematic position.

New finds have made it clear what was hidden inside a simple tube, which is very similar to the skeletons of many ancient animals – Sphenothallus, Byronia and so on. The body of G. aspera was smooth and was divided into several parts by partitions (septa).

At the front end there was a mouth surrounded by non-branching tentacles about five millimeters long (obviously, they served to capture food), at the back there was a blindly ending gut. Thus, the animal did not have an anus – this is typical for some types of invertebrates.

Thanks to new findings, scientists have learned the systematic affiliation of the ancient pipe inhabitant. The structure of G. aspera corresponds to the type cnidaria, which includes modern jellyfish and coral polyps.

Moreover, the ancient creature strongly resembles scyphoid jellyfish, or rather polyps, the immobile stage of their life cycle.

“In fact, our discovery is one in a million. These enigmatic pipes are often found in clusters of several hundred, but until now they were considered ” problematic ” fossils, so we could not determine their taxonomy.

Thanks to these exceptional new specimens, a key piece of the evolutionary puzzle is finally in place,” said study leader Dr. Luke Parry from the University of Oxford (UK).


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