The fossil of an extinct marine predator that lay entombed in an ancient seafloor for 520 million years reveals the creature had a sophisticated heart and blood-vessel system similar to those of its distant modern relatives, arthropods such as lobsters and ants, researchers report today (April 7).
The cardiovascular system was discovered in the 3-inch-long (8 centimeters) fossilized marine animal species called Fuxianhuia protensa, which is an arthropod from the Chengjiang fossil site in China's Yunnan province. It is the oldest example of an arthropod heart and blood vessel system ever found.
"It's really quite extraordinary," said study co-author Nicholas Strausfeld, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The cardiovascular network is the latest evidence that arthropods had developed a complex organ system 520 million years ago, in the Cambrian Period, the researchers said. Arthropods come in a wide range of shapes and sizes today, but the animals have kept some aspects of their basic body plan since the Cambrian. For instance, the brain in living crustaceans is very similar to that of F. protensa, which is a distant relative — but not a direct ancestor of — modern species, Strausfeld said. "The brain has not changed much over 520 million years," he said.
In contrast, blood vessel networks have become both simpler and more complex in the ensuing millennia, in response to changing bodies. The modern relatives of F. protensa are arthropods with mandible jaws, and include everything from insects such as beetles and flies to crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs.
"What we're seeing in the arterial system is the ground pattern, the basic body pattern from which all these modern variations could have arisen," Strausfeld told Live Science.