525-mn-year-old fossil sheds new light on primitive sea creatures

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 25, 2011 10:40 hrs

A remarkable fossil, which sheds new light on an important group of primitive sea creatures, has been discovered by researchers from China, Leicester and Oxford.

The 525-million-year-old fossil belongs to a group of tentacle-bearing creatures, which lived inside hard tubes. Previously only the tubes have been seen in detail but this new specimen clearly shows the soft parts of the body including tentacles for feeding.

The creature belongs to a group called pterobranch hemichordates which are related to starfish and sea urchins but also show some characteristics that offer clues to the evolution of the earliest vertebrates. About 30 species of pterobranch are known to exist today although 380-490 million years ago a group of these animals called graptolites were common across the prehistoric oceans.

Pterobranches are creatures, which secrete a substance that builds up into a hard tube around their soft body. Tentacles extend from the top of the tube to catch plankton. Although less than 4cm in length, the new fossil is beautifully preserved and minute details can be seen including 36 tiny tentacles along one feathery arm.rofessor David Siveter from the University of Leicester's Department of Geology commented, "Amazingly, it has exceptionally preserved soft tissues - including arms and tentacles used for feeding - giving unrivalled insight into the ancient biology of the group."

Details of the discovery have been published in the journal Current Biology. (ANI)

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