Researchers studying anthropod fossils dating from the Cambrian period have discovered a couple of strange blue-colored lines with dark spots. The thin lines that spread from those dark splotches proved to be part of one of the most complex anatomical structures: the nervous system.
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal last Monday.
According to Mike Lee from the South Australian Museum and the Flinders University, the fossils were found in China and represent unique pieces of ancient anatomy. The fossils reveal extraordinary details about the evolution of the nervous system since they are 515 million years old.
Javier Ortega-Hernández, co-author of the study, has declared that such representations of nervous systems are extremely rare in fossils, and thus this is a unique chance for scientists to observe the structure of such a system from more than five hundred million years ago. Furthermore, it will give them an invaluable insight into the animal evolution.
The animal in question is a Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis, a creature that lived during a time when many other animals emerged in a very short period: the Cambrian explosion. Its fossil belongs to the arthropod category that also includes lobsters, spiders, insects, centipedes, cicadas and crabs. Generally speaking, phylum arthropoda is an invertebrate animal that features jointed limbs, a segmented body and an exoskeleton.
The discovery is considered to be truly unique in the sense that this nervous system is not at all similar to the normal one of arthropods. Animals of our time have few individual nerves that are gathered around each ganglion. The ancient fossil presents a nervous system more similar to the one of velvet worms that do not have an exoskeleton.
Dr. O Ortega-Hernández believes that the creature was in a state of evolution between the Onychophoran and the arthropod. Today’s arthropods have more special features than their ancestors, such as antennae and great jaws.
While the ancient nervous system is not the first one discovered from the Cambrian period, it is the most extensive and well-preserved. Previous fossils did have detailed forms of the brain, but not of the nerve cord as is the case with the Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis.
Chengjiangocaris used to belong to the Fuxianhuiida group of arthropods situated at the base of their family tree. Reaching a length of six inches, they were considered to be quite large in their time. They used their eighty pairs of legs to walk on the bottom of the sea but had quite uneventful lives.
The discovery is sure to shed light on the evolution of the nervous system since the Cambrian explosion.
Image Source: New Scientist
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