Public Release:  Ancient blob-like creature of the deep revealed by scientists

A unique blob-like creature that lived in the ocean approximately 425 million years ago is revealed in a 3-D computer model in research published today in the journal Biology Letters

Imperial College London

A unique blob-like creature that lived in the ocean approximately 425 million years ago is revealed in a 3D computer model in research published today in the journal Biology Letters. The model is helping researchers to understand what primitive species on early Earth looked like and how they might have evolved into the types of creatures that are on Earth today.

The scientists, from Imperial College London, have developed a detailed 3D model of the only known fossilised specimen in the world of a creature called Drakozoon. The specimen was found by one of the team approximately 6 years ago in the Herefordshire Lagerstätte, one of England's richest deposits of soft-bodied fossils.

Drakozoon lived in the ocean during the Silurian Period, 444 to 416 million years ago, and today's model hints at how it lived.

The research reveals that Drakozoon was a cone-shaped, blob-like creature with a hood and it probably had a leathery exterior skin. It appears to have survived in the ocean by attaching itself to hard surfaces such as rock. It was approximately 3mm long, and used filament-bearing tentacles to catch and eat organic particles in seawater. It pulled its hood down over its body for protection against predators, pulling it back again to expose its tentacles when danger passed.

Dr Mark Sutton, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says:

"Excitingly, our 3D model brings back to life a creature that until recently no one knew even existed, and provides us with a window into the life of Drakozoon. We think this tiny blob of jelly survived by clinging onto rocks and hard shelled creatures, making a living by plucking microscopic morsels out of seawater. By looking at this primitive creature, we also get one tantalising step closer to understanding what the earliest creatures on Earth looked like."

Scientists have debated what the first relatives of all creatures on Earth may have resembled and how their bodies evolved. Some scientists think the creatures had repeated units, similar to a caterpillar with its many segments and legs, while others think that their bodies were structured in more free-form ways, similar to slugs.

In today's study, the researchers analysed their 3D model and discovered that Drakozoon had eight deep ridges on either side of its body. They suggest that these deep ridges are the genetic remnants from a time when Drakozoon had a body made of repeated units, supporting the theory that the earliest creatures on Earth were also made of repeated units.

The study shows that Drakozoon was an early member of a major group of invertebrate species called lophophorates. The best known lophophorates are the brachiopods, a type of spineless shellfish that are some of the most common fossils from the Silurian Period. The team found their Drakozoon specimen clinging onto the fossilised shell of a brachiopod.

The researchers created their 3D model by physically slicing a fossil into 200 pieces. These pieces were individually photographed and the images were fed into a computer, which generated the 3D model for analysis by the scientists.

The researchers say it is very rare to find ancient soft bodied creatures intact because they normally decompose before they can be preserved in sediment. The soft bodied Drakozoon was perfectly preserved because it lived in an area that was covered in volcanic ash, following a volcanic eruption that instantly entombed it and other creatures living with it, keeping it intact for 425 million years.

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This research was funded by Natural Environment Research Council.

Colin Smith
Press Officer
Imperial College London
Email: cd.smith@imperial.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)207 594 6712
Out of hours duty press officer: +44 (0)7803 886 248

Notes to editors:

1. DOWNLOAD 3D model of creature in today's study: https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/files/9cc7b0f5acd/EpiBigCP.AVI

2."A soft-bodied lophophorate from the Silurian of England" Biology Letters journal, Wednesday 4 August 2010

Download a proof copy of the paper: https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/files/6be50aadb63/Drakozoon.pdf

The full listing of authors and their affiliations for this paper is as follows: (1)Mark Sutton, (2) Derek Briggs, (3) Derek Siveter, (4) David Siveter

  1. Imperial College London, Department of Earth Science and Engineering
  2. Yale University, Department of Geology and Physics
  3. University of Oxford, University Museum of Natural History
  4. University of Leicester, Department of Geology

Download a copy of the study (strictly embargoed) using this link: {INSERT LINK}

3. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Website: www.imperial.ac.uk

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