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

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost-Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More