A team of paleontologists announces that they have identified the fossil of a tentacled creature unknown until then. The animal, which lived in the depths of the ocean 560 million years ago, may be an ancient relative of the modern jellyfish. It could also be the oldest known predator in the animal kingdom. Details of the study are published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Scientists have discovered the remains of the animal amid a thousand other fossils in an outcrop of volcanic and sedimentary rock from England’s Bradgate Formation dating back 557 to 562 million years ago (Ediacaran period). This means that this newly identified creature predates the Cambrian Explosion, an episode in which complex life rapidly diversified.
Most of these fossils, which suggested about 20 different species, resembled the frond-like creatures previously found in Precambrian rocks. This fossil stood out, however, because of its resemblance to forms revealed in animals living today. This had never been the case until now for Precambrian fossils.
Oldest known predator?
To learn more, the team led by paleobiologist Philip Wilby of the British Geological Survey made rubber casts of the fossil-filled mineral wall to study in the lab.
Such impressions, however, tend to be all flattened which makes the internal anatomy and body shapes of animals difficult to interpret. To create 3D models of their casts, the researchers lit them from different angles and took numerous photos. These snapshots were then compiled into a virtual 3D model that could be digitally manipulated.
These reconstructions revealed that this creature is now named Auroralumina attenboroughii looked like a kind of candelabra (a chandelier with several branches). The researchers have identified two “goblet” shaped structures starting from a single foot, probably supported by a rigid skeleton, above these seemed to protrude the tips of small tentacles.
” It was the first creature, the first animal that we know of that actually developed a skeleton.“, explains Philip Wilby. ” Its tentacle structure suggests that A. attenboroughii probably fed on plankton and protists, which worked the first known predator of the animal kingdom“.
The origin of cnidarians postponed?
This creature also shares many fundamental characteristics with the Cambrian fossils of the Medusozoa group which includes the modern jellyfish.
While this fossil may not look like a jellyfish at first glance, it’s important to note that during part of their life cycle, neither did jellyfish. It happens that these animals anchor themselves to the bottom of the sea to reproduce asexually. During this stage, they then look more like anemones, just like A. attenboroughii.
SiA. attenboroughii is indeed a member of the Medusozoa, then it would belong to a larger group of organisms known as cnidarians which also includes corals and other sea anemones. Prior to this new study, fossil evidence suggested that the basic “model” for cnidarians only emerged during the Cambrian period. What this study tells us is that this “master plan” was in fact already well established at least twenty million years ago.