Fossil of a shape-shifting sea creature discovered in Morocco

  • July 17, 2013 | Stuart Buchanan

Beware the Kraken!

Okay, so this this new discovery isn't actually that terrifying, but the recent unearthing of a 500-million year-old fossil in Morocco has raised eyebrows. The new-found species is the most primitive echinoderm ever found – this is the same family of animals to which starfish and sea urchins belong. They are distinguished by their five-point symmetry, and Helicocystis moroccoensis, as it has been named, is no different. Check out the video below, which describes the bizarre cigar-shaped creature and its five spiralled grooves which help it move through water, change shape, and collect food:

Around 500-million years ago, when H. moroccoensis was still swimming around, the Earth looked quite different. All life was found in the sea, and underwent what is described as the Cambrian explosion – a period of evolutionary history when life suddenly and rapidly diversified into all manner of shapes and sizes. Andrew Smith, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and co-author of the study of H. moroccoensis, says that it was found in sediment that contained several other strangely-designed echinoderms.

"The important thing about the whole fauna is that there is already, by this time, a remarkable diversity in body form," Smith says. "And yet this is only 10- to 15-million years after the calcite skeleton evolved."

To put this into perspective, the oldest dinosaur fossils ever found date back around 240-million years ago, and the earliest documented members of the genus Homo, to which modern humans belong, evolved around 2.3-million years ago. 

An illustration of how Helicocystis moroccoensis looked 500-million years ago. Image courtesy of Andrew Smith

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