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Ancient Sea Creatures Filtered Foods Like Modern Whales


One of the fossil feeding appendages of Tamisiocaris.
Image credit: Dr Jakob Vinther, University of Bristol.

Based on the finding of the new fossils in northern Greenland, it is reported that ancient, giant marine animals were able to utilize mysterious facial appendages to filter food they need from the ocean.

The research done by the group of scientists from the University of Bristol shows the way in which Tamisiocaris, the strange species, utilized the big and special appendages to filter plankton, just like the modern blue whales do today.

Tamisiocaris lived 520 million years ago in the period of ‘Cambrian Explosion’, also called as the Early Cambrian, during such period of time, all the complex ecosystems and main animal groups came into a sudden appearance.

Such animals is cataloged in the group of animals named as anomalocarids, a kind of early arthropod including the biggest  and some of the most typical animals in the period of the Cambrian.

By using flaps down at each side of their body, they swam and with the big appendages in front of their mouths, they would probably able to take larger prey like trilobites.

However, from the fossils newly discovered, it is clear that those predators has developed into suspension feeders, thus their grasping appendages had been morphed into a filtering apparatus which could be swept like a net through the water, trapping tiny crustaceans and other organisms whose size could be half a millimeter.

The evolutionary movement from the large, apex predators towards the suspension-feeding giants in the period of Cambrian which was characteristic of high production has also taken place several other times in the evolution of the Earth.  It is confirmed by Dr Jakob Vinther, a macroevolution lecturer in the University of Bristol.

As Dr Vinther said, in the ecological sense, such primitive arthropods were the whales and sharks in the Cambrian era, in both of which, some species developed into suspension feeders and turned to be the gigantic, slow-moving animals which in turn relied their food on the tiniest animals in the water.

To identify the way the Tamisiocaris might have fed, the researchers worked out the 3D animation by computer to show the range of movements that the feeding appendage could make.

Dr Martin Stein at the University of Copenhagen, the creator of such computer animation, said that Tamisiocaris would have been a feeder of sweep net, which could curl its appendage up against its mouth so as to collect particles in the fine mesh formed. By doing so, it is confident to say that something concrete concerning the feeding ecology of such types of ancient creatures has been well illustrated.

This discovery is also helpful in highlighting just how productive the Cambrian period was, thus demonstrating how widely various species of anomalocaridids evolved at that time, It will assist in giving more detailed information about the ecosystems that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.

Dr Vinther said that we would know a lot of things about the ecosystem from the fact that large, free-swimming suspension feeders swam the oceans. It requires a lot of energy, namely a large amount of food to feed on the smallest particles by the means filtering them out of the water while swimming actively around in the ocean.

Tamisiocaris is regarded as one of many diverse anomalocarids recently discovered in rocks aged from 520 to 480 million years old. The anomalocarids were thought to be a weird, failed experiment, but now the scientists found that they had completed a major evolutionary explosion and they could do nearly everything in regard to acting as top predators to feeding on small plankton.”

The fossils of Tamisiocaris were found during a number of expeditions made recently by the team led Professor David Harper at DurhamUniversity. These expeditions have discovered the important treasure trove of new fossils in one of the remotest parts of the Earth. There are still more new fossil animals to be explored and described in the future. The new information about this remarkable animal will give us more clues for the solution of the amazing jigsaw puzzle.

The expeditions were funded by the Agouron Institute, Carlsberg Foundation and Geocenter Denmark.

 Source: Bristol University

Journal Reference:

  1. Jakob Vinther, Martin Stein, Nicholas R. Longrich, David A. T. Harper. A suspension-feeding anomalocarid from the Early CambrianNature, 2014; 507 (7493): 496 DOI: 10.1038/nature13010