510,000,000-year-old starfish ancestor discovered in graveyard

A ancestor 510 million years old sea ​​stars and the hedgehogs sea moderns has been unearthed in a church cemetery in Pennsylvania, United States.

It lived at the bottom of the ocean at a time when most of the major animal groups first appear in the fossil record.

The remarkable discovery sheds new light on the evolution of life, scientists say.

The strange creature would have been multicolored, possibly orange, black and blue, and was about the size of a golf ball.

It has been named Yorkicistis haefneri, after amateur paleontologist Chris Haefner.

He was looking for extinct marine arthropods called trilobites on the grounds of City View Church in York, Pennsylvania.

The fossil of a Yorkicistis haefneri. Dr. Samuel Zamora.

Mr Haefner, president of the Lancaster County Fossil and Mineral Club, said: “I spent just over four years digging holes in the lawn to locate fossils in the churchyard.”

There are lenses with fossils everywhere. When I found Yorkicistis, I didn’t know its relevance, but I knew it was worth keeping.

“The City View Church site is 90% undiscovered and who knows what is still hidden there.”

Unlike today’s relatives, Yorkicistis had no skeleton. Only the arms were mineralized, protecting the delicate feeding structures from damage.

It belonged to a diverse group called echinoderms, which also includes sea cucumbers.

Yorkicistis had a disc-shaped body with five arms and a mouth in the center.

It is unique in having a partially soft body instead of having a hard skeleton made of calcium carbonate.

The phenomenon represents a rare case of ‘evolutionary loss’, explained the international team.

Lead author Dr Samuel Zamora, from the Spanish Higher Council for Scientific Research, Madrid, said: “This is an important discovery with important implications for understanding the history of echinoderms, the group of animals that includes starfish, sea ​​urchins, brittle stars and their relatives”.

‘Yorkicystis represents the oldest example of an echinoderm that has a secondarily reduced skeleton.

“We were surprised to see that this had happened so close to the group’s origins more than half a billion years ago.”

Dr. Samuel Zamora.

Yorkicistis hails from a time period called the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ when a large number of different species began to emerge in the seas.

Co-author Dr Jeffrey Thompson, from the Natural History Museum, London, said: “By studying the genes involved in skeletal formation in modern echinoderms, we can make predictions about skeletal development in Yorkicistis.”

“For example, we think that many of the genes that build the skeleton in modern echinoderms were probably not expressed in the soft parts of the animal’s body.

“It’s really exciting to be able to explore the development of an animal that lived more than half a billion years ago.”

Yorkicistis had a rounded shape with a diameter of less than two inches.

It would have been an omnivore, using its arms to capture floating food particles from both plants and animals.

Co-author Dr Imran Rahman, also from the Natural History Museum, said:

“The Cambrian explosion was one of the most important events in the history of life.

‘A key innovation at this time was the evolution of a hard mineralized skeleton, which helped protect early animals from potential predators.

“The reasons Yorkicistis reduced its skeleton at this time are unclear, but it could have helped conserve energy for other metabolic processes.”

It only came to the attention of scientists thanks to the efforts of Mr. Haefner, who shared photos on Facebook.

Dr. Zamora saw the photographs and contacted him, explaining the meaning.

As we report in AmericanPost.NewsMr. Haefner kindly agreed to donate the specimen to the Natural History Museum, so that it could be analyzed.

In recognition, scientists dedicated the species and the new family and genus to the city of York in southern Pennsylvania.

Yorkicitis is described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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