Saturday, May 29, 2010

500 Million Year Old Mollusk Identified

It was discovered in British Columbia, Canada and looks like a cross between a shrimp and cartoon alien but it is actually one of the world's oldest and most primitive cephalopods. 

It's name is Nectocaris pteryx pushes the origins of cephalopods back at least 30 million years making them one of the longest lasting animal groups on Earth.  Cephalopods include modern octopi, squids and cluttlefish.

Martin Smith, a paleobiologist at the Royal Ontario Museum's Department of Natural History told Discovery News "modern cephalopods display a quite astonishing intelligence, and I like to think that Nectocaris may have been the smartest critter in the Cambrian sea."

Smith and his colleague, Jean-Bernard Caron studied at least 91 Nectocaris fossils found from the Burgess Shale, located in Yoho National Park near Field, British Columbia.  Thanks to the exceptional preservation of soft-bodied animals Burgess Shale is known for, the paleobiologists were able to get an idea as to what primitive cephalopods looked like.

Nectocaris did not have a hard shell contrary to what most scientists had thought for decades.  According to Smith, "shells evolved much later, probably in response to increased levels of competition and predation in the Late Cambrian."

Nectocaris was approximately 2 inches long, quite small by modern cephalopod standards, and swam using its large lateral fins.  It could accelerate to high speeds by using a nozzle-like funnel to squirt out water.  It was kite-shaped and flat from top to bottom with large, stalked eyes and a long pair of grasping tentacles. 

Other scientists have wondered why Nectocaris lacked such cephalopod features as a ring of tentacles around the mouth, a beak and a radula.  According to Smith, he and Caron were able to identify some possible mouthparts but that they weren't well preserved for them to describe in detail.

Highlights from the Royal Ontario Museum's Burgess Shale collection will go on display in its future Peter F. Bronfman Gallery of Early Life.  They will also be able to be seen on the Virtual Museum of Canada Burgess Shale website which will be launched in the spring of 2011.

For more information on this interesting mollusk and to see an artists rendition of what Nectocaris would have looked like you can read the Technology and Science article and find further information in the Vancouver Sun's Technology section.

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