Anomalocaris really does know how it feels to be a bit of an anomaly… and he’s not the only one.

Many moons ago railroad workers in the Canadian Rockies took time off from amusing themselves by freezing off various body parts and instead took to finding some rather amusing shaped rocks. When word of the stony-bugs from the back of beyond reached the palaeontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott he went to take a looksy for himself. There the esteemed gent found some of the most remarkable curiosities in a marvellous state of preservation; there were even squishy creatures in the fossil beds.

Such wibbly bits are very rarely preserved and so when Charles first found a jellyfish that seemed to be tussling with a prawn he could do little else but marvel upon it and place it lovingly with the other sixty five thousand specimens he’d been working on.

... anomalocaris and the rest of the burgess shale gang loved slacks...

Charles returned the next year, and the proceeding year after that… oh… and for the next twenty-three years, tirelessly describing these fossils of the Burgess shale. He toiled away meticulously describing the stone bugs, crow-barring the fossils into the families of existing animals, before finally passing away three years later at the ripe old age of seventy seven. Though he passed peacefully it was a tragic death, like an impoverished artist he died without realising the true worth of his toils.

Other palaeontologists found sponges, in the vicinity of other specimens of the prawns and jellyfish first described by Mr Walcott Esq. Soon it became clear that these weren’t ancient sea creatures having a salty shindig… they were in fact one creature… the jellyfish is in fact a mouth, those prawns were graspers, the sponge would have been abominable at bath-time and was actually a body… it was in fact a relatively huge predator from the Cambrian period.

... one is partial to a shrimp cocktail...

As more recent learned types have poured over Walcott’s specimens from the Burgess shale they’ve begun to realize just how remarkable they are. These aren’t ancient shrimp, odd old jellyfish and wormy ancestors. They are a cornucopia of creatures that have no relatives left, odd little thingamujigs that we have nothing left on the planet to even vaguely compare them to. Not only that but these creatures have re-evaluated how we look at these extinct creatures… the tree of life isn’t a small sapling with a few families branching out here and there… it is a magnificent oak with huge branches reaching out. Somewhere near the top is an unremarkable branch, just a tiny fraction of the size of the whole tree, and every single one of the millions upon millions of animals that live on our planet is represented by this simple bough… and all the sprigs below it have fallen… and each tiny twig on every single branch a little anomaly… just like the odd little shrimp from a set of fossils that redefined the tree of life.

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 11:53 am  Leave a Comment  


When Professor Harry B Whittington first showed his beloved and painstaking reconstruction of opabinia to his esteemed peers they gave a rather surprising response… they laughed.


Sadly it wasn’t because opabinia was a famed wit and raconteur, nor were these learned types prone to giddy bouts, poor opabinia was just a bit funny looking. Of course guffawing at his looks wasn’t a very nice thing to do, and could go part way to explain why this odd chap hasn’t been that social in the last 500 million years.


Though it’s not just the five eyes that make this chap Ever so Strange. Where to begin ‘pon his many festoonations? One thinks we may have to go through this logically. So starting at the rather odd-front; opabinia has what can only be described as a spiny claw. The claw is attached to a hollow trunk, yes quite like that of the elephant, except corrugated as if it were a hoover attachment. He would have used the claw on the end of his odd trunk much like an elephant too, to pick up morsels he quite liked the look of on the seabed and shove them in his odd little mouth that faced backwards.

His head was quite normal… if you can call a head with five eyes normal… no… oh. Very well then. His odd head, with its odd backwards-facing mouth, was stuck on a body that in all fairness was a bit odd. It was basically fifteen segments on each of which was an odd floppy lobe either side, odd floppy lobes that would Mexican wave him through the Cambrian seas… which, for the record, were rather odd places.


So why was opabinia so odd? Well it seems we judge him with modern eyes, we try and compare him with what we know we say ‘he’s a bit like a scorpion or a horseshoe crab.’ Though this odd one out is just not like that, for a start off he’s not even a crustacean or an insect or anything we are lucky enough to have on our planet today, he doesn’t even have a hard shell. The wobbly chap was in fact more closely related to the tardigrades and velvet worms. Perhaps this is what opabinia best represents, the many experimental forms that evolved, only to fall at various hurdles. Hopefully no-one laughed when he tripped up.

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment