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The Mystery of the Cambrian Mollusc-Like Thing

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If you are so inclined, this mystery could be “evidence” against evolution: if scientists can’t classify a 525 million-year-old fossil (annelid? arthropod? mollusc? something else?) then why is there any reason to think it “evolved” at all, rather than having been “created” sui generis and sent on its merry way, snurfling along the Cambrian sea floor.

Regardless, there is an interesting scientific puzzle presented by Vetustodermis planus, the 2-4 inch fossil found in Anning, China, which had a flattened body, horizontal fins, and well developed senses including a pair of eyes on stalks.

According to a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the creature seems closest to molluscs, primarily because it had a slug-like flat foot, but it’s not a flush fit there, either.

“Phyla are defined by an organism having a set of features called characters, and currently there are no animals that we know of which contain the set of characters that Vetustodermis has,” co-author David Bottjer, of the University of Southern California, told the BBC. “The phylum with which it shares the most characters is the Mollusca, but squeezing Vetustodermis into the mollusca is a somewhat messy job.”

“We have always been intrigued by the many molluscan features of these fossils,” he continued, “but in the great menagerie of organisms that have inhabited Earth through life’s long history, we may come to conclude that Vetustodermis indeed represents a new phylum.”

Jonathan Todd, a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum, London, is reluctant to cavalierly create a whole new phylum. “Some scientists have thought that there were so many distinct phyla in the Cambrian. They came to that conclusion because they were not thinking in the phylogenetic sense, they were thinking ‘hey, that is a unique set of features – it must be a distinct phylum’,” he sniffed.

“We don’t really know the phylo-genetic relationships between the extant phyla,” he said. “Molecular genetics has only gone so far. But recent phyla have got to connect somehow. These fossils really offer the opportunity to tie together recent phyla.”

So Todd is a “pusher” and Bottjer is a “puller” when it comes to creating a new phylum for the little suck-footed fella, but at least neither accused the other of blasphemy.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Duane

    I imagine that it’s not easy trying to fit together puzzle pieces that are over half a billion years old. Why does this particular problem of classification pose a challenge to Evolution? Or don’t all problems in Biology pose equally weighty problems for those trying to understand the big picture?

  • Nancy

    It doesn’t pose any kind of problem to evolution – yet – simply because at the moment it’s still posing a problem as to what the silly thing is. In order to postulate evolution, first you have to decide where a critter ‘fits’ in relation to others. If you’ve got a really weird Whatsis, you’re up a tree. Rather like the initial reactions of people when they first encountered a platypus. There’s actually a cambrian fossil that’s been named ‘hallucigenia’ because it’s so weird, altho my fave is wiwaxia, which looks like a tiny pinecone w/spikes.

  • Eric Olsen

    I was attempting to be somewhat playful with that opening

  • Nancy

    Well, there is certainly lots to play with in the cambrian fauna! The weirdness of the fossils tells ME that God was on a toot – or maybe took some bad acid that day; they are truly surreal…altho how anyone can take the squashed fossil & translate it into a 3-d version is what amazes me.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com alienboy

    Eric, was that opening playful by intelligent design? LOL

  • Eric Olsen

    heehee, good one!

  • Duane

    Eric, I figured as much. Given all the recent Creationism vs. Evolution debates here at BC, I assumed you were trying to be an instigator just for the hell of it. However, I have complained to others here about assuming too much about other posters, and I thought there might be some underlying arguments.

    Also, the use of the word “sniffed” suggested that you weren’t taking this too seriously. Hehe. Nice one.

    So, I’m wondering if and when the Creationists are going to jump all over this.

  • Eric Olsen

    how about “snurfling”?

  • Nancy

    Good pun, Alienboy! Seriously, ya can’t get too serious about cambrian critters & evolution; I think the best anyone can try to do is decide which end was the front.

  • Eric Olsen

    from a religious and philosophical standpoint, I am quite sympathetic to the concept of intelligent design: it’s just metaphysics. But it has nothing to do with science

  • Duane

    I thought that was a technical term describing a physical propulsion mechanism characteristic of univalve Cephalopoda.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com alienboy

    Eric, nor with our actual reality…

  • Eric Olsen

    my vision was more of gooily foraging

  • Nancy

    Something like that, amazing it lived in the salt sea; you’d think the salt would have shrivelled it up like a slug, as it, ah, oiled it’s way across the ocean floor, foraging on gooilys.

  • Eric Olsen

    why don’t sea slugs shivel up in salt water?

  • billy

    “then why is there any reason to think it “evolved” at all, rather than having been “created” sui generis and sent on its merry way, snurfling along the Cambrian sea floor.”

    well, it would be absurd to call it “created” because there is no evidence anywhere, ever, of something being created.

    if it is a new phyla, so be it, that strengthens evolution because we have a clearer picture of the structure of ancient lifeforms.

    the day i see something spontaneously created, i will consider intelligent design as something other than mystics.

  • Eric Olsen

    riiight, who are you arguing with?

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Intelligent design and a mysterious mollusc-like thing has been brought to my attention recently in another way. You can learn more about it here and here and here.

  • Eric Olsen

    Flying Spaghetti Monsterism: tax-exempt status pending

  • Shark

    I know you were just funnin’, Eric, but the fact that it doesn’t fit into any ‘one’ phyla — ie it might actually ‘straddle’ two different ones — might be a good argument FOR evolution.

    Anyway, interesting news. Thanks for posting!

    Shark
    [Amateur Fossil Hunter Who Lives at Ground Zero (*Upper & Lower Cretaceous!)]

    *Jealous, aint’ cha!

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Shark, there’s a bunch of interesting geological stuff in Ohio, but it’s very recent, the last Ice Age

  • JR

    The Ordovician isn’t that recent.

  • Eric Olsen

    “mostly” recent

  • Nancy

    Maybe we could call this thread “Name That Mollusc” or “Fun With Phyla”?

  • Eric Olsen

    “Name That Mullusc-like Thing”

  • JR

    Taxonomy always seemed to me like a pretty dodgy exercise when all they have to go on is morphology. If, millions of years in the future, the only human fossil found is a pair of Siamese twins, how would our species be classified?

  • Nancy

    As very, very strange.

    Taxonomy is pretty much a judgement call & always has been, hence all the really bloody ferocious fights by obscure scientists about even more obscure names for even MORE obscure ‘things’ over the years. But it’s fun, and this year’s “new” species is next year’s “just another example of the old XYZ species found in 1922″ brawl.

  • Eric Olsen

    that “you find it you name it” thing is pretty cool

  • Nancy

    Yeah, but it makes it a bitch when you’re having to memorize/learn dozens of “A. Afarensis Haroldii” or “L. Axtentia Laurensii”.

  • Eric Olsen

    “I hereby name my semi-mollusc fossil, SnailBob Flatpants

  • Nancy

    ROTFLOL!!!! GOOD ONE!!!

  • Nancy

    It think it’s supposed to be “M. Vetustodermus p. Snailbobia Flatpantsii”

  • Eric Olsen

    to the cognoscenti

  • Nancy

    Or to its close friends.

  • Eric Olsen

    his mother called him Vetus, even when he was grown with a family of his own