Precambrian muscles??? Oooooh!

Okay, consider this a cautious squee. I wish at least some of those Ediacaran fossils were a little more obvious. I mean, I might love fossils, but I’m trained to squirt nasty chemicals on bits of dead worm and play with protein sequences, not to look at faint impressions in rock and see an animal.

Most putative animals from the Ediacaran period, the “dark age” that preceded the Cambrian explosion, are confusing to the actual experts, not just to a lab/computer biologist with a fondness for long-dead things. The new paper by Liu et al. (2014) this post is about lists a “but see” for pretty much every interpretation they cite. The problem is twofold: one, as far as I can tell, most Ediacaran fossils don’t actually preserve that much interpretable detail. Two, Ediacaran organisms lived at a time when the kinds of animal body plans we’re familiar with today were just taking shape. The Ediacaran is the age of ancestors, and it would be more surprising to find a creature we can easily categorise (e.g. a snail) than a weird beastie that isn’t quite anything we know.

Having said that, Liu et al. think they are able to identify the new fossil they named Haootia quadriformis. Haootia comes from the well-known Fermeuse Formation of New Foundland, and is estimated to be about 560 million years old. The authors say its body plan – insofar as it can be made out on a flat image pressed into the rock – looks quite a lot like living staurozoan jellyfish, with a four-part symmetry and what appear to be branching arms or tentacles coming off the corners of its body. The most obvious difference is that Haootia seems to show the outline of a huge circular holdfast that’s much wider than usual for living staurozoans.

However, the most exciting thing about this fossil is not its shape, but the fact that most of it is made up of fine, highly organised parallelish lines – what the authors interpret as the impressions of muscle fibres. The fibres run in different directions according to their position in the body; for example, they seem to follow the long axes of the arms.

(Below: the type specimen of Haootia with some of the fibres visible, and various interpretive drawings of the same fossil. Liu et al. is a free paper, so anyone can go and look at the other pictures, which include close-ups of the fibres and an artistic reconstruction of the living animal.)

If the lines do indeed come from muscle fibres, then regardless of its precise affinities, Haootia is certainly an animal, and it is probably at least related to the group called eumetazoans, which includes cnidarians like jellyfish and bilaterians like ourselves (and maybe comb jellies, but let’s not open that can of jellies just now). Non-eumetazoans – sponges and Trichoplax – do not have muscles, and unless comb jellies really are what some people think they are, we can be almost certain that the earliest animals didn’t either.

Finding Ediacaran muscles is also interesting because it gives us further evidence that things capable of the kinds of movement attributed to some Ediacaran fossils really existed back then. Of course, it would have been nicer to find evidence of muscle and evidence of movement in the same fossils, but hey, this is the Precambrian. You take what you get.

(P.S.: Alex Liu is cool and I heart him. OK, I saw him give one short talk, interviewing for a job at my department that he didn’t get *sniffles*, so maybe I shouldn’t be pronouncing such fangirlish judgements, but that talk was awesome. As I’ve said before, my fangirlish affections are not very hard to win 🙂 )

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Reference:

Liu AG et al. (2014) Haootia quadriformis n. gen., n. sp., interpreted as a muscular cnidarian impression from the Late Ediacaran period (approx. 560 Ma). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281:20141202

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Living jellyfish =/= earliest stage in metazoan evolution…

So, admittedly, I wasn’t interested enough in Bielecki et al. (2013) to read the whole thing. But if the abstract is an accurate reflection of their reasoning, then “WTF” is an accurate reflection of my reaction.

The reason I went to have a look at this shiny new PLoS paper is that it was titled “Fixational Eye Movements in the Earliest Stage of Metazoan Evolution”. Anything to do with early metazoan evolution automatically interests me, plus my immediate reaction was to ask how the hell they discovered any kind of eye movement in the earliest animals (which have been, you know, dead for like 600 million years).

Turns out they didn’t. Turns out all they found was that the rhythmic contraction of a box jelly‘s bell keeps the image in its eyes changing so they don’t go blind from photoreceptor fatigue. We accomplish the same effect by constantly moving our eyes (though apparently that’s more for the brain getting bored than photoreceptors burning out?), but the jellies supposedly don’t have the same level of nervous and muscular control over their eyeballs.

Yes, box jellies have frickin’ amazing eyes, complete with lenses. In fact, they have 4 sets of 6 eyes, two of the six being proper camera eyes and the other four much simpler. They can use their eyes to navigate around obstacles and stuff. They are pretty cool creatures. Here’s a box jelly eye cluster (rhopalium) in its full glory from the UCMP:

(Was that just a little bit unsettling? :D)

But these complex, image-forming eyes are an innovation of box jellies. No other cnidarian – in fact, no other animal outside the Bilateria – has them. So complex eyes and good vision are examples of convergent (or should I say parallel?*) evolution, not inheritance from a common ancestor. Conversely, bilaterians don’t have bells like jellyfish, so anything they do to move their eyes has to be an independent invention from the get-go.

So, while box jellies are awesome and it’s always cool to learn more about them, I’m not sure what profound insight about animal evolution we are supposed to find here. That animals with eyes have ways of avoiding visual fatigue? Well, duh. Of course they would, it’s really useful. But I’m not even sure the pulsation of a jellyfish should be regarded as a vision-enhancing adaptation, never mind an adaptation with any relation to what we do. To me it seems like the default way a jelly moves just happens to be good at keeping its eyes entertained. Evolution doesn’t have to do anything special about it.

Of course, the whole thing is soaked with that grandmother of evolutionary misconceptions, exemplified by this quote from the introduction:

Cnidarians were the first of the extant metazoan phyla to develop a nervous system which is therefore considered close to the evolutionary origin of all nervous systems [9].

Nooooooo, for the love of hungry anomalocaridids, don’t do this to me.

Cnidarians and bilaterians shared a common ancestor with a nervous system. Never mind “phyla” – phyla are arbitrary lines humans drew around the branches of the phylogenetic tree. Our ancestors and theirs had nervous systems for the exact same length of time. Neither of us was “first”. Life is a tree, not a goddamned ladder.

Well, at least we got to look at some disembodied jellyfish eyes. Yay!

*goes away to growl quietly*

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*The difference being that parallel evolution is convergence  from a common starting point. While complex eyes are clearly later inventions, the common ancestor of cnidarians and bilaterians might well have possessed simple eyespots of some sort, providing said common starting point. But we’re getting pedantic here.

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Reference:

Bielecki J et al. (2013) Fixational eye movements in the earliest stage of metazoan evolution. PLoS ONE 8:e66442