A 518-million-year-old armored worm might not seem like much at first glance, but it is a significant scientific discovery. This tiny creature, which resembles an interdental brush, is believed to be the common ancestor of three major animal groups. Its fossilized remains, discovered in China, have shed new light on the evolution of these animals and how they came to be. Despite its small size and unassuming appearance, this ancient worm has provided valuable insights into the history of life on Earth.
Wufengella looked like a tiny toilet brush in life, but its body plan inspired several evolutionary remodels. Image credit: Roberts Nicholls, Paleocreations.com
A remarkable discovery has been made in the depths of the fossil record – a 518-million-year-old armored worm known as Wufengella. This tiny yet significant creature is a crucial player in the evolutionary tree, as it represents the ancestor of not just one but three major groups of animals. Despite its diminutive size, this bristly worm, belonging to the extinct tommotiids group, packs a powerful punch in terms of its contribution to our understanding of the history of life on Earth. It may look like an ordinary interdental brush, but Wufengella is a big deal in paleontology.
Despite being a common discovery in Cambrian shelly fossils found globally, little has been known about the extinct tommotiid group of animals. However, Wufengella, with its unique and striking physical features, is emerging as an intriguing addition to this group. The armored worm was protected by a not symmetrical shell, covering a squishy body with spiky projections lining the sides, resembling a miniature toilet brush. Its peculiar appearance suggests that Wufengella had a segmented body in its evolutionary past, akin to an earthworm.
The fossil Wufengella and a drawing outline the major components of the organism. Image credit: Jakob Vinther and Luke Parry
While Wufengella’s unique appearance may suggest it is a cross between a bristle worm and a chiton mollusk, this peculiar creature does not belong to either of those groups. Dr. Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences has described Wufengella’s appearance as deceivingly unique. In fact, this armored worm significantly contributes to the evolutionary tree, passing on its traits to a surprisingly wide range of animals.
The team that discovered Wufengella has concluded that this bristly worm played a generous role in the inheritance of animal traits. During the Cambrian Explosion, when biodiversity was at its peak, evolution occurred rapidly, and only a few creatures passed down their traits across multiple phyla. However, Wufengella was one of them, contributing to developing over 30 leading body plans in the animal kingdom. Despite its small size, Wufengella’s legacy is colossal, proving that even the tiniest creatures can significantly impact the history of life on Earth.
One of those exceptions was Wufengella.
A schematic outline of how tommotiids tell us about the evolution of body plans across the tree of Life. Image credit: Luke Parry
The discovery of the 518-million-year-old worm, Wufengella, is fascinating for its funky appearance and significance in the evolutionary tree. Researchers have found that the bristly worm, belonging to an extinct group of animals known as tommotiids, is the shared ancestor of three major groups of animals: brachiopods, phoronids, and bryozoans. These valved animals, horseshoe worms, and moss animals, respectively, all possess a curious organ called a lophophore, which filters water. The discovery of Wufengella is like the final puzzle piece in understanding the evolutionary history of these animals. Co-author Dr. Luke Parry from the University of Oxford expressed his excitement, stating that he “couldn’t believe [his] eyes” when he first saw the fossil. The fossil record is essential in piecing together evolutionary trees. It provides an opportunity to trace each lineage back to its roots and understand how different organisms once looked and behaved. Wufengella is a poster child for the importance of the fossil record in understanding the diversity of life on Earth.
The researchers who discovered Wufengella concluded that it passed some traits to a surprisingly wide range of animals. One of these traits is the lophophore, a curious organ found within brachiopods that enables them to filter water. The lophophore is essentially a pair of tentacles folded into a horseshoe shape, and it’s shared by two other big names in the phylum roster: phoronids (known as horseshoe worms) and bryozoans (called moss animals). The trio forms the Lophophorata as a group of closely related organisms.
By working backward from the body plan of the Lophophorata to that of Wufengella, it seems the bristly ancient worm is their shared ancestor. This discovery is important because it puts the final puzzle piece into a jigsaw since researchers knew the Lophophorata relative was out there but could not find it.
Co-author Greg Edgecombe from the Natural History Museum explains that fossils like Wufengella are important in piecing together evolutionary trees as they provide a complete picture of each lineage back to its roots, realizing how they once looked altogether different and had very different modes of life, sometimes unique and sometimes shared with more distant relatives.
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