News / Science & Technology

Fossils Show Odd Sea Creature's Half-Billion-Year-Old Brain

A side-by-side comparison reveals the similarity between the brain of a living onychophoran (green) and that of the anomalocaridid fossil Lyrarapax unguispinus (gray). (Illustration by Nicholas Strausfeld)
A side-by-side comparison reveals the similarity between the brain of a living onychophoran (green) and that of the anomalocaridid fossil Lyrarapax unguispinus (gray). (Illustration by Nicholas Strausfeld)
Reuters

Researchers on Wednesday described fossilized remains unearthed in China showing in fine detail the brain structures of a bizarre group of sea creatures that were the top predators more than half a billion years ago.

The fossils show an animal called Lyrarapax unguispinus that lived during the Cambrian Period, a pivotal juncture in the history of life on Earth when many major animal groups first appeared. It was a member of a group known as anomalocaridids - primitive relatives of arthropods, which include crustaceans, insects and spiders - that hunted prey with a pair of claw-like grasping appendages in front of the eyes.

Even though anomalocaridids do not have any direct descendants alive today, the brain structures of Lyrarapax closely resemble those of worm-like animals called velvet worms that crawl along the ground in tropical and semitropical forests in the Southern Hemisphere.

The researchers said the similarities suggest that velvet worms may be very distant cousins of the anomalocaridids, whose best-known example is Anomalocaris, known from a Canadian fossil site called the Burgess Shale.

Velvet worms, land animals also known as onychophorans, grow to a few inches in length, have two long feelers extending from the head and have numerous pairs of stubby, unjointed tubular legs that each end in a pair of small claws.

Lyrarapax, whose scientific name means spiny-clawed, lyre-shaped predator, lived 520 million years ago. Its neuroanatomy resembles that of velvet worms in multiple ways, with a simple brain and a pair of ganglia - a cluster of nerve cells - placed in the front of the optic nerve and the base of the grasping appendages.

The soft parts of any animal's body typically decay after death, meaning that fossils usually preserve only hard parts like bones, teeth and shells. But under exceptional  circumstances, soft tissue and anatomical organs can be preserved in fossils.

Lyrarapax was much smaller than some other anomalocaridids. It measured about six inches (15 cm) long, roughly the size of a large shrimp. Peiyun Cong, a paleontologist at Yunnan University in China, said the three specimens of Lyrarapax that were found “may represent immature stages of the animal, so it might be larger.”

“Anomalocaridids preserved with the whole body are very rare. None of them have been reported with the brain,” Cong said.

The fossils show that anomalocaridids possessed brains that were less complex than those of animals it may have hunted.

University of Arizona neuroscientist Nicholas Strausfeld, another of the researchers, said the threat posed by predators like these creatures may have helped drive brain complexity among animals in the ancient seas.

“Predation may have in part contributed to the evolution of more elaborate brains that could process more complex ecological cues that might have offered camouflage or other protection,” Strausfeld said.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

You May Like

Video Westgate Mall Attack Survivors Confront Painful Memories

On anniversary of terror attack, survivors discuss how they have coped with trauma they experienced that day More

Iraqi Kurdish Leader: Protect Syrian City

Islamic State fighters are besieging Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, after seizing at least 21 surrounding villages in a major assault against city on Syria's northern border with Turkey More

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid