Perhaps the oldest cephalopods in earth’s history originate from the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland (Canada). They were discovered by Earth scientists at the University of Heidelberg. The 522 million year old fossils may turn out to be the earliest known form of these highly evolved invertebrate organisms, whose living descendants today include species such as cuttlefish, octopus and nautilus. In this case, the discovery would indicate that cephalopods evolved about 30 million years earlier than expected.
“If they were in fact to be cephalopods, we would have to trace the origin of cephalopods to the early Cambrian period,” says Dr. Anne Hildenbrand of the Institute of Earth Sciences. Together with Dr Gregor Austermann she led research projects carried out in cooperation with the Bavarian Natural History Collections. “This would mean that cephalopods appeared at the very beginning of the evolution of multicellular organisms during the Cambrian explosion.”
The chalky shells of fossils found in the eastern Avalon Peninsula are shaped like an elongated cone and are subdivided into individual chambers. These are connected by a tube called a siphuncle. Cephalopods were therefore the first organisms capable of actively moving up and down in water and thus settling in the open sea as their habitat. Fossils are distant relatives of the spiral-shaped nautilus, but clearly differ in shape from the first finds and still extant representatives of this class.
“This discovery is extraordinary,” says Dr. Austermann. “In scientific circles, it has long been suspected that the evolution of these highly developed organisms began much earlier than previously assumed. But there was a lack of fossil evidence to support this theory. According to scientists in Heidelberg, fossils from the Avalon Peninsula could provide this evidence, because on the one hand, they resemble other known early cephalopods but, on the other hand, differ so much from them that they could eventually form a link leading to the Early Cambrian.
The ancient and little explored micro-continent of Avalonia, which – in addition to the east coast of Newfoundland – includes parts of Europe, is particularly suited to paleontological research, as many different creatures from the Cambrian period are still preserved in its rocks. The researchers hope that other, better-preserved findings will confirm the classification of their findings as early cephalopods.
Research findings on 522 million year old fossils have been published in the journal Nature Communications biology. Logistical support was provided by the Province of Newfoundland and the Manuels River Natural Heritage Society located there. The publication in open access format has been activated within the framework of the DEAL project.
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