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Spiky Little Sea 'Monster' Thrived a Half Billion Years Ago

A fossil of Collinsium ciliosum, a creature found in the early Cambrian Xiaoshiba deposit of southern China, is seen in a picture provided by Jie Yang.

More than half a billion years ago, a peculiar little creature with rows of spikes on its back and delicate, featherlike front limbs that could strain bits of food from the water thrived in the primordial seas of what is now China.

Scientists on Monday announced the discovery in Yunnan province of beautifully preserved fossils of one of the stranger animals ever to call Earth home. The creature, Collinsium ciliosum, lived during the Cambrian Period, a time of remarkable evolutionary experimentation when many unusual animals appeared and vanished.

"Collinsium is definitely an odd-looking animal, and if one were to bump into one of these during a snorkeling or diving trip nowadays, it would be quite shocking," said University of Cambridge paleobiologist Javier Ortega-Hernandez, whose research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Despite its startling appearance, some people "may like it and regard it as a 'handsome beast,' " added paleontologist Xi-Guang Zhang of Yunnan University in Kunming, China.

Its name means "hairy Collins monster," recognizing its bizarre appearance and the coat of hairlike structures on the front of the animal while honoring Canadian paleontologist Desmond Collins, who decades ago conceptualized a similar creature.

Ortega-Hernandez said Collinsium, which lived about 515 million to 518 million years ago, is a distant ancestor of today's velvet worms, a group resembling legged worms residing in the world's tropical forests.

Collinsium, reaching up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) long, boasted 72 sharp spikes on its back to ward off predators. It was one of the earliest soft-bodied animals with armor.

It had a sausage-shaped body, six pairs of featherlike front legs, nine pairs of rear legs with claws, a bulbous head and downward-facing mouth. It got its dinner by extending its feathery front legs to form feeding basket to capture food particles.

Collinsium was a close cousin of another spiky Cambrian creature called Hallucigenia.

University of Cambridge paleontologist Martin Smith, whose study offering the most detailed account ever of Hallucigenia was published last week in the journal Nature, said even oddballs like Hallucigenia and Collinsium would have plenty of competition in a "Cambrian weirdest-creature contest."

"Their compatriots included such beasts as Wiwaxia, a slug covered in leaflike scales and towering spines; Anomalocaris, resembling a cross between a lobster and a can opener; Nectocaris, a boggle-eyed two-armed squid; and Opabinia, which looks like a shrimp that swallowed a vacuum cleaner," Smith said.