Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Middle Ordovician
Maine fossils from Portugal are shedding light on Middle Ordovician, where there had been a gap in the fossil record. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

LAWRENCE -- A clutch of marine fossil specimens unearthed in northern Portugal that lived between 470 and 459 million years ago is filling a gap in understanding evolution during the Middle Ordovician period.

The discovery, explained in a new paper just published in The Science of Nature, details three fossils found in a new "Burgess Shale-type deposit." (The Burgess Shale is a deposit in Canada renowned among evolutionary biologists for excellent preservation of soft-bodied organisms that don't have a biomineralized exoskeleton.)

"The paper describes the first soft-body fossils preserved as carbonaceous films from Portugal," said lead author Julien Kimmig, collections manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. "But what makes this even more important is that it's one of the few deposits that are actually from the Ordovician period -- and even more importantly, they're from the Middle Ordovician, a time were very few soft-bodied fossils are known."

Kimmig and his KU Biodiversity Institute colleagues, undergraduate researcher Wade Leibach and senior curator Bruce Lieberman, along with Helena Couto of the University of Porto in Portugal (who discovered the fossils), describe three marine fossil specimens: a medusoid (jellyfish), possible wiwaxiid sclerites and an arthropod carapace.

"Before this, there had been nothing found on the Iberian Peninsula in the Ordovician that even resembled these," Kimmig said. "They close a gap in time and space. And what's very interesting is the kind of fossils. We find Medusozoa -- a jellyfish -- as well as animals which appear to be wiwaxiids, which are sluglike armored mollusks that have big spines. We found these lateral sclerites of animals which were actually thought to have gone extinct in the late Cambrian. There might have been some that survived into the Ordovician in a Morocco deposit, but nothing concrete has been ever published on those. And here we have evidence for the first ones actually in the middle of the Ordovician, so it extends the range of these animals incredibly."

Kimmig said the discovery of uncommon wiwaxiids fossils in this time frame suggests the animals lived on Earth for a far greater span of time than previously understood.

"Especially with animals that are fairly rare that we don't have nowadays like wiwaxiids, it's quite nice to see they lived longer than we ever thought," he said. "Closely after this deposit, in the Upper Ordovician, we actually get a big extinction event. So, it's likely the wiwaxiids survived up to that big extinction event and didn't go extinct earlier due to other circumstances. But it might have been whatever caused the big Ordovician extinction event killed them off, too."

According to the researchers, the soft-bodied specimens fill a gap in the fossil record for the Middle Ordovician and suggest "many soft-bodied fossils in the Ordovician remain to be discovered, and a new look at deep-water shales and slates of this time period is warranted."

"It's a very interesting thing with these discoveries -- we're actually getting a lot of information about the distribution of animals chronologically and geographically," Kimmig said. "Also, this gives us a lot of information on how animals adapted to different environments and where they actually managed to live. With these soft-body deposits, we get a much better idea of how many animals there were and how their environment changed over time. It's something that applies to modern days, with changing climate and changing water temperatures, because we can see how animals over longer periods of time in the geologic record have actually adapted to these things."

The fossils were discovered in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

Co-author Couto discovered the fossils in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. When the animals were alive, the Valongo Formation was part of a shallow sea on the margin of northern Gondwana, the primeval supercontinent.

"Based on the shelly fossils, the deposit looks like it was a fairly common Ordovician community," Kimmig said. "And now we know that in addition to those common fossils jellyfish were floating around, we had sluglike mollusks roaming on the ground, too, and we had bigger arthropods, which might have been predatory animals. So, in that regard, we're getting a far better image with these soft-bodied fossils of what these communities actually looked like."

According to the KU researcher, scientists didn't grasp until recently that deposits from this period could preserve soft-bodied specimens.

"For a long time, it was just not known that these kinds of deposits survived in to the Ordovician," Kimmig said. "So, it is likely these deposits are more common in the Ordovician than we know of, it's just that people were never looking for them."

Kimmig led analysis of the fossils at KU's Microscopy and Analytical Imaging Laboratory to ensure the fossils were made of organic material. Leibach, the KU undergraduate researcher, conducted much of the lab work.

"We analyzed the material and looked at the composition because sometimes you can get pseudo fossils -- minerals that create something that looks like a fossil," Kimmig said. "We had to make sure that these fossils actually had an organic origin. And what we found is that they contain carbon, which was the big indication they would actually be organic."

 

Press release from the University of Kansas


Meet Callichimaera perplexa, the platypus of crabs

Meet Callichimaera perplexa, the platypus of crabs

Callichimaera perplexa Cretaceous
The diversity of body forms among crabs, including the enigmatic Callichimaera perplexa (center). Credit: Photos, Arthur Anker & Javier Luque; figure, Javier Luque, Yale University

New Haven, Conn. - The crab family just got a bunch of new cousins -- including a 95-million-year-old chimera species that will force scientists to rethink the definition of a crab.

An international team of researchers led by Yale paleontologist Javier Luque announced the discovery of hundreds of exceptionally well-preserved specimens from Colombia and the United States that date back to the mid-Cretaceous period of 90-95 million years ago. The cache includes hundreds of tiny comma shrimp fossils, several true shrimp, and an entirely new branch of the evolutionary tree for crabs.

The most intriguing discovery, according to the researchers, is Callichimaera perplexa, the earliest example of a swimming arthropod with paddle-like legs since the extinction of sea scorpions more than 250 million years ago. The name derives from a chimera, a mythological creature that has body features from more than one animal. Callichimaera's full name translates into "perplexing beautiful chimera."

Luque noted that Callichimaera's "unusual and cute" appearance, including its small size -- about the size of a quarter -- large compound eyes with no sockets, bent claws, leg-like mouth parts, exposed tail, and long body are features typical of pelagic crab larvae. This suggests that several of the larval traits seen in this "perplexing chimera" might have been retained and amplified in miniaturized adults via changes in the timing and rates of development. This is a process called "heterochrony," which may lead to the evolution of novel body plans.

"Callichimaera perplexa is so unique and strange that it can be considered the platypus of the crab world," said Luque. "It hints at how novel forms evolve and become so disparate through time. Usually we think of crabs as big animals with broad carapaces, strong claws, small eyes in long eyestalks, and a small tail tucked under the body. Well, Callichimaera defies all of these 'crabby' features and forces a re-think of our definition of what makes a crab a crab."

A study about the discovery appears in the April 24 online edition of the journal Science Advances.

"It is very exciting that today we keep finding completely new branches in the tree of life from a distant past, especially from regions like the tropics, which despite being hotspots of diversity today, are places we know the least about in terms of their past diversity," Luque said.

###

Luque's team included researchers from the University of Alberta, Kent State University, the University of Montreal, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the University of Nevada, and the College of Communication and Design in Boca Raton, Fla.

Artistic reconstruction of Callichimaera perplexa, the strangest crab that has ever lived. Credit: Elissa Martin, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Press release from Yale University