An artist’s reconstruction of ‘Anomalocarisbriggsi swimming within the twilight zone © Katrina Kenny

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Ancient marine creatures with radiating teeth also had complex compound eyes

Ancient deep-sea creatures called radiodonts had incredible vision that likely drove an evolutionary arms race according to new research published today.

The study was led by Professor John Paterson from the University of New England’s (UNE) Palaeoscience Research Centre but involved an international team. The Natural History Museum London’s palaeontologist, Dr Greg Edgecombe, worked with the team at UNE to examine specimens from the South Australian Museum.

Through interpreting the fossils and creating species reconstructions they found that radiodonts developed sophisticated eyes over 500 million years ago, with some specially adapted to the dim light of deep water.

Dr Edgecombe explains, 'The Australian material is unique among the dozens of occurrences of radiodonts around the world in the Cambrian Period, because it's the only place where the visual surface of the eye is preserved.’

'In other sites in China, Canada, the USA and elsewhere, only the outline of the eyes is known but there's no information on their lenses.'

Radiodonts, meaning “radiating teeth”, are a group of arthropods that dominated the oceans around 500 million years ago. The many species share a similar body layout resembling elongated prawns with conical teeth arranged in a circle around the mouth. But over the past few decades many new discoveries — including whole radiodont bodies — have given a clearer picture of the various species’ anatomies highlighting their diversity.

Professor Paterson, UNE, comments, ‘When complex visual systems arose, animals could better sense their surroundings, that may have fuelled an evolutionary arms race between predators and prey. Once established, vision became a driving force in evolution and helped shape the biodiversity and ecological interactions we see today.’

Dr Edgecombe adds, ‘These specimens have shown us that the animals’ feeding strategies previously indicated by the appendages -– either for capturing or filtering prey – are paralleled by differences in the eyes. The predatory radiodont in our samples has the eyes attached to the head on stalks but one that filter feeds has them at the surface of the head. The more we learn about these animals the more diverse their body plan and ecology is turning out to be.’ 

‘The new samples also show how the eyes changed as the animal grew. The lenses formed at the margin of the eyes, growing bigger and increasing in numbers in large specimens – just as in many living arthropods. The way compound eyes grow has been consistent for more than 500 million years.’

The study “Disparate compound eyes of Cambrian radiodonts reveal their developmental growth mode and diverse visual ecology” was published today in the prestigious journal Sciences Advances and is available here.

Notes to editors

Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk  

Images available to download here.

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