A mysterious creature that lived long before the first dinosaurs walked the surface of Earth has finally been identified, thanks to perfectly preserved guts unearthed from a site at the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Called the stylophorans, the creatures are believed to have existed from about 510 million to 310 million years ago during the middle of the Cambrian until the late Carboniferous period.
Ancestor Of Modern Starfish
Fossils of stylophorans have been found all over the world since the 1850s, but the recent discovery is significant. Rarely do scientists unearth fossilized soft tissues, limiting what is already known about the creatures to the hard skeletal parts that remain after millions of years.
Thus, for a long time, where the stylophoran fits into history has remained a hotly debated topic. Scientists could neither identify what exactly the creature is nor explain its rather bizarre shape.
"Their internal anatomy was not only entirely unknown but also — and mostly — highly controversial," stated Bertrand Lefebvre of the Laboratory of Geology of Lyon in France, the lead researcher of the study.
The new discovery published in the journal Geobios this month finally settles the debate. The fossilized soft tissues confirmed that stylophorans are echinoderms, the ancestors of modern sea urchins, sea stars, and sea cucumbers.
Unlocking The Secrets Of Stylophorans
A stylophoran had two main parts: the core body and a flat, paddle-like appendage. Since its discovery, scientists have proposed ideas that explain the appendage, but it was not confirmed until now.
According to the research, the core body of a stylophoran contained intestines while the appendage had a water vascular system that helped the creature to move and eat, similar to the behavior of modern-day sea stars.
"This discovery is of particular importance because it brings to an end a 150-year-old debate about the position of these bizarre-looking fossils in the tree of life," added Lefebvre.
The fossilized soft tissues were unearthed along with about 450 other stylophoran specimens in 2014 during an excavation at the Fezouata Formation located at the edge of the Sahara Desert in Southern Morocco. Each specimen was dated to be about 478 million years old.