Temporal range: Early Cambrian–Mid Cambrian
Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis was a shrimp-like animal that lived during the Cambrian explosion. The species is a type of fuxianhuiid, which are distant ancestors of arthropods. Five 520 million-year-old fossil specimens were excavated in southern China and first reported in 2013 by Javier Ortega-Hernández and his colleagues. One specimen shows detailed evidence of a nervous system, "the fossil may be the oldest and most detailed example of a central nervous system yet identified, with even individual nerves -- rarely preserved soft tissue -- visible enough to study."
The 520 million-year-old fossilized nervous system is the most complete example of its type and could help unravel how the nervous system evolved in early animals.
The fossil was excavated in southern China. Individual nerves are visible. Fossilized soft tissue is rare, but this particular find, by researchers in the UK, China and Germany, represents the most detailed example of a preserved nervous system yet discovered.
Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis lived during the Cambrian explosion, a period of rapid evolutionary development about half a billion years ago when most major animal groups first appear in the fossil record. C. kunmingensis belongs to a group of animals called fuxianhuiids, and was an early ancestor of modern arthropods, which include insects, spiders and crustaceans.
"This is a unique glimpse into what the ancestral nervous system looked like," said study co-author Javier Ortega-Hernández. "It’s the most complete example of a central nervous system from the Cambrian period."
Starting about 2010, researchers have identified partially-fossilized nervous systems in several different species from the period, but these have mostly been fossilized brains. And in most of those specimens, the fossils only preserved details of the profile of the brain.
C. kunmingensis looked like a crustacean, with a broad, almost heart-shaped head shield, and a long body with many pairs of legs of varying sizes. Through careful preparation of the fossils, which involved chipping away the surrounding rock with a fine needle, the researchers were able to view not only the hard parts of the body, but fossilized soft tissue as well.
The vast majority of excavated fossils preserve bone and other hard body parts such as teeth or exoskeletons. Since the nervous system and soft tissues are essentially made of fatty-like substances, finding them preserved as fossils is extremely rare. The researchers behind this study first identified a fossilized central nervous system in 2013, but the new material has allowed them to investigate the significance of these finding in much greater depth.
The central nervous system coordinates all neural and motor functions. In vertebrates, it consists of the brain and spinal cord, but in arthropods it consists of a condensed brain and a chain-like series of interconnected masses of nervous tissue called ganglia that resemble a string of beads. Like modern arthropods, C. kunmingensis had a nerve cord, analogous to a spinal cord in vertebrates, running throughout its body, with each one of the bead-like ganglia controlling a single pair of walking legs. Closer examination of the exceptionally preserved ganglia revealed dozens of spindly fibers, each measuring about five thousandths of a millimeter in length. "These delicate fibers displayed a highly regular distribution pattern, and so we wanted to figure out if they were made of the same material as the ganglia that form the nerve cord," according to Ortega-Hernández. "Using fluorescence microscopy, we confirmed that the fibers were in fact individual nerves, fossilized as carbon films, offering an unprecedented level of detail. These fossils greatly improve our understanding of how the nervous system evolved." For Ortega-Hernández and his colleagues, a key question is what this discovery tells us about the evolution of early animals, since the nervous system contains so much information. Further analysis revealed that some aspects of the nervous system in C. kunmingensis appear to be structured similar to that of modern priapulids (penis worms) and onychophorans (velvet worms), with regularly-spaced nerves coming out from the ventral nerve cord. In contrast, these dozens of nerves have been lost independently in the tardigrades (water bears) and modern arthropods, suggesting that simplification played an important role in the evolution of the nervous system.
Possibly one of the most striking implications of the study is that the exceptionally preserved nerve cord of C. kunmingensis represents a unique structure that is otherwise unknown in living organisms.
- This article includes text from 520 million-year-old fossilised nervous system is most detailed example yet found, University of Cambridge Research, licensed (CC BY 4.0)
- "Figure 3: Reconstruction of Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis". Researchgate. Retrieved 1 March 2016.
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- Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales Fossils, FossilMuseum.net