Some 500 million years ago, strange alien-like “Lovecraftian animals” roamed the seas. One of them is called Opabinia, a creature with five compound eyes, a fan-like tail, and a claw-like mouth at the end of a long vacuum-like proboscis.
Creatures like these are possible predecessors to the evolution of insects and arthropods, and crustaceans.
To some, Opabinia is “one of evolutions’ oddest creatures” and also extremely rare. Most fossilized specimens come from a deposit exposed in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia called the Burgess Shale. Here, Cambrian deposits are preserved with exceptional detail of their soft parts, offering a glimpse into early life on Earth.
Recently, paleontologist Stephen Pates stumbled onto an Opabinia fossil at the Natural History Museum at Kansas University. Now, it’s considered the first new opabiniid for over 100 years and the second-ever recognized.
Stumbling Across a New Opabinia
Pates was looking for similarly bizarre-looking creatures called radiodonts, the primary carnivores of the Cambrian explosion. These much larger bizarre arthropods may have fed on trilobites and the earliest ancestors of vertebrates with circular toothy jaws.
Some of Anomalocaris’ prey was likely the Opabinia, coming in at a much smaller size of about 7 cm or almost 3 inches long.
See Anomalocaris from Naked Science:
Confirming A New Creature
When Pates came across the fossil in 2017, it was classified as a radiodont, but he wasn’t sold. Notably, it was first described as a radiodont over a decade ago.
It had zigzagging body flaps and “enough spikes to make a Stegosaurus jealous,” the Times reports. Unfortunately, its head was not well-preserved, so it’s unclear if it, too, had a trunk-like snout.
Then, Pates and Harvard researchers built evolutionary trees after extensive phylogenetic tests. Ultimately, they concluded this fossil is the second opabiniid ever discovered. Wonderfully, one of the researchers became a paleontologist with a dream of one day studying Opabinia. Now, they have helped describe a new opabiniid, naming it after a Roman goddess.
“They named the new species Utaurora comosa, after the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, who turned her lover into a cicada — one of the innumerable arthropods that came after Utaurora,” writes Jack Tamisiea.
The Goddess Aurora
Aurora is also Eos (Greek), the personification of the dawn. In the story, she turns her beloved Tithonus, a handsome prince, into a cicada after Zeus fulfills her request to make him immortal. However, she didn’t ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus withered away until he couldn’t move.
In pity, she changed his form and would still hold him in her arms, taking pleasure from hearing his voice. The Greeks believed when cicadas shed their skin, they could be rejuvenated, like snakes.
Sometimes, Eos is depicted rising from the sea in a chariot drawn by winged horses.
As for Comosa, it describes the ‘hairy’ upper side and a tail fan of many’ leaves.’
At just over an inch long, the Utaurora is smaller than Opabinia but fearsome-looking with its spiky tail. As it moved along, it may have encountered another bizarre-looking creature, Titanokorys. These football-helmet-sized predators had a “spaceship-shaped” carapace and may have vacuumed up prey from the sea bottom.
See Titanokorys via SciTech Daily:
Featured image: Opabinia regalis life restoration via Wikimedia Commons by Nobu Tamura, (CC BY-SA 4.0)