Complex brains evolved much earlier than previously thought, 520-million-year-old fossilized arthropod confirms

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Complex brains evolved much earlier than previously thought, as evidenced by a 520-million year old fossilized arthropod with remarkably well-preserved brain structures. Representing the earliest specimen to show a brain, the fossil provides a “missing link” that sheds light on the evolutionary history of arthropods, the taxonomic group that comprises crustaceans, arachnids and insects.


The remarkably well-preserved fossil of an extinct shows that anatomically complex brains evolved earlier than previously thought and have changed little over the course of evolution. According to University of Arizona Nicholas Strausfeld, who co-authored the study describing the specimen, the fossil is the earliest known to show a brain.

The discovery will be published in the Oct. 11 issue of the journal Nature.

Embedded in mudstones deposited during the 520 million years ago in what today is the Yunnan Province in China, the approximately 3-inch-long fossil, which belongs to the species Fuxianhuia protensa, represents an extinct lineage of arthropods combining an advanced with a primitive body plan.

The fossil provides a “missing link” that sheds light on the of arthropods, the taxonomic group that comprises crustaceans, and insects.

The researchers call their find “a transformative discovery” that could resolve a long-standing debate about how and when complex brains evolved.

“No one expected such an advanced brain would have evolved so early in the history of multicellular animals,” said Strausfeld, a Regents Professor in the UA department of neuroscience.

According to Strausfeld, paleontologists and have yet to agree on exactly how arthropods evolved, especially on what the looked like that gave rise to insects.

“There has been a very long debate about the origin of insects,” Strausfeld said, adding that until now, scientists have favored one of two scenarios.

Written By: PhysOrg
continue to source article at phys.org

20 COMMENTS

  1. If, as it seems, evolution frequently comes up with similar solutions for adaptation, there are no reason not to think that intelligent civilisations might have arisen in geological times and left no fossil trace whatsoever. 

  2. What period were you thinking of, Ornicar? We have a fairly robust history of life on the planet from chemical evidence of life in early rocks (carbon isotope ratios) at 3.8ga, – pretty much as soon as the conditions for the existence for life arose – through early bacteria fossils in the Archean (3.75ga), and stromatolites at the beginning of the Proterozoic to the first preserved multi-celled life forms in the Precambrian.

    This ‘process’ is supported by geology, chemistry, cosmology, etc’, so it would appear pretty difficult for an intelligent civilisation to arise and disappear without leaving some footprint or other?

    Still, it’s interesting to think of an isolated proto human civilisation (spaceship crash perhaps?) whose energy and food needs begin the evolutionary arms race that became the Cambrian explosion and that has since been destroyed and completely subducted – apart from a small band of individuls who take half a billion years to make it to Africa and wipe out those pesky hominids, and who, by some method of horizontal gene transfer from something that has the same chemical history as those hominids prokaryote ancestors , have became us?

    Sounds like a great novel or film script?

    I’m thinking Jason Statham, here.

    Anvil.

  3. Intelligence in humans evolved very quickly. This implies it is not as difficult as we imagine.  We still overrate ourselves based on religious pride. Intelligence might have happened before in species that soon went extinct before leaving a decent fossil record. It may have even happened many times. I eagerly await some new fossil-finding technology that could clearly prove or disprove this hypothesis. 

  4. What if intelligent species had existed in the past but never made a civilization? Our minds are actually half the equation to human dominance on Earth.  The other being our hands. Making and using tools requires some means of taking the ideas from the mind and employing it in a useful way. Maybe whatever evolved in the past couldn’t get over this hump.

  5. I love posts like this which jab the imagination. Thing is, I can’t get away from the economy of natural selection for too long. Certainly not long enough to imagine a large-brained creature with intelligence and the inability to use it.

    Contrary to creationist twaddle we have extremely unsophisticated eyes that ‘see’ a paltry piece of the electro-magnetic spectrum. They developed to ‘see’ only that which was needed to ‘see’. All form has function.

    “Intelligence in humans evolved very quickly. This implies it is not as difficult as we imagine…”

    Well, no, not quite, Roedy. Like life itself, it implies that it happened once – and that’s an odd enough statistic, isn’t it?

    Anvil.

  6. Unfortunately, creationists will be all over this as more ” proof ” that the ” Cambrian explosion ” was divinely instigated. These being old earth creationist. Hopefully, YEC will object strenuously enough that all creationism, the ideology, will implode from savage infighting! 

    Poor brachiopods lose out! What a tangled web we weave when we first practice taxonomy!

  7. Ornicar
    If, as it seems, evolution frequently comes up with similar solutions for adaptation, there are no reason not to think that intelligent civilisations might have arisen in geological times and left no fossil trace whatsoever. 

    There were probably not technical civilizations like human ones, but most humans would probably not recognise intelligent colonies if they saw them.

    http://inhabitat.com/building-… –
    Biomimicry’s Cool Alternative: Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe
    The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, typifies the best of green architecture and ecologically sensitive adaptation. The country’s largest office and shopping complex is an architectural marvel in its use of biomimicry principles. The mid-rise building, designed by architect Mick Pearce in conjunction with engineers at Arup Associates, has no conventional air-conditioning or heating, yet stays regulated year round with dramatically less energy consumption using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites!

    Termites in Zimbabwe build gigantic mounds inside of which they farm a fungus that is their primary food source. The fungus must be kept at exactly 87 degrees F, while the temperatures outside range from 35 degrees F at night to 104 degrees F during the day. The termites achieve this remarkable feat by constantly opening and closing a series of heating and cooling vents throughout the mound over the course of the day. With a system of carefully adjusted convection currents, air is sucked in at the lower part of the mound, down into enclosures with muddy walls, and up through a channel to the peak of the termite mound.
    The industrious termites constantly dig new vents and plug up old ones in order to regulate the temperature.

    Humans have only started building tower-blocks fairly recently, and only started farming a few thousand years ago!

  8. Before we imagine the rapidity of the evolution of human intelligence is indicative of the evolution of high intelligence being easy to get started, or argue species could have evolved with much intelligence but poor dexterity and thereby left few tools, bear in mind the following. Rapid evolution is typically the hallmark not of mutational availability but of a positive feedback born of co-evolution. Many evolutionary biologists suspect that, after humans became bipedal, our hands no longer having to compromise between dexterity and locomotion may have led to such hand-brain co-evolution.

  9. “Alan4discussion

    There were probably not technical civilizations like human ones, but
    most humans would probably not recognise intelligent colonies if they
    saw them.”

    Yeah, you and your eusocial termites again. What’s the penalty if a termite wants to leave? C’mon Alan, tell us! What’s the penalty for termite apostasy?

    Huh, yeah, thought so.

    Anvil.

  10.  
    anvil

    Yeah, you and your eusocial termites again.
    What’s the penalty if a
    termite wants to leave? C’mon Alan, tell us! What’s the penalty for
    termite apostasy?

     The penalty for a termite leaving the colony, is starvation because of exclusion from the farmed food supply in the mound, or being killed by the soldiers of any other colony where its seeks some of theirs.

  11. Never mind hands, tools or buildings. If they had brains, they had a culture. That is, the ability to replicate, alter and select cultural information. And culture evolves much faster than nature, that’s what makes it fun. Many species went extinct without leaving any fossil record ; why not some intelligent ones ? We don’t know if we were the first memetic lifeform on this planet. Hopefully, scientist arthropodes sent electromagnetic signals into space, to contact aliens, millions years ago.  Lizards did great for a while, as well. Lately, apes are in fashion. My bet goes on ants or scorpios for the quinternary. We might not be able to destroy life (because it’s damn hard to destroy), but we seem pretty able to destroy our own specie. Have a nice day.

  12. I’d like to support Ornicar’s point. The ability to manipulate cultural information does not necessarily show on the fossil record. As for the “trilobites in lab coats” … As much as I like this picture and although our subject is purely speculative, I really don’t think, that intelligent life appeared on this planet before the neocortex was developed in mammals. Most of the time brains were simply information processing machines – garbage in, garbage out. They only grew in sophistication. The neocortex however is a whole new concept: It simulates future events/sensory input and compares this “simulated reality” to incoming patterns of “real” input. All the other features like invariant representation or auto-associative memory storaging are present in ye ol’ lizzard’s brains. But the neocortex takes this to a new level: Suddenly you have beings planning ahead instead of simply reacting. Moreover, like Jos Gibbons said, humaniods had the opportunity to use this new brain technologie and evolve it – not conciously (at least not yet) – even further.

  13. I suppose we first need to define what culture is, or indeed, specifically,what types of culture we are talking about.

    If we mean culture to encompass progress beyond that of genetic inheritance that can be passed on to successive generations of a species, then many species have it.

    Just.

    Social Sharks like Hammerheads (fish), Dolphins (mammals), and Octopus (generally solitary Cephalopods that I’ve seen show others how to unscrew lids off jars) to name but three, all do this.

    All of the above could (and variations of them have, no doubt) become extinct leaving no fossil trace whatsoever. It is correct then to say that cultural information does not necessarily show on the fossil record.

    However, the type of culture that could lead to what we may describe in any way as ‘civilisation’ only seems to appear with ourselves.

    Our one example of this is us, and fairly robust arguments can be made as to how and why this happened – all of which leaves evidence. For example a large volume neocortex and small volume gut are expensive and we can theorise these took cooked high protein food to buy. This itself predict hearths and tool use in the record – and these we find.

    For culture to have a runaway effect and evolve very much faster than nature takes tool use, language, communication, and writing. All of this is geologically recent, has happened only once, and we see no evidence of this elswhere.

    With our knowledge of the tree of life and natural selection I find it hard to fathom how anything much prior to this could have happened?

    Perhaps we could speculate on another totally different type of life that existed in the early forming of the planet. A life form that may exist even today moving through the viscous mantle with ease and living in huge molten hadean cities deep within the earth.

    But then it wouldn’t be a chemistry that we would understand, would it? It couldn’t be a creature that shifted carbon around, could it?

    From the first biochemical traces of life in late Hadean minerals that survived the rock cycle, to similar ‘footprints’ in early rock carbon ratios we can get an inkling of the long path from a universal common ancestor to ourselves.

    Looking at this path I really can’t see anywhere for any ‘other’ civilisations to hide

    Sorry, just read through before pressing ‘post’… I appreciate that this is sounding slightly teleological. It’s not how I meant it to sound – Doh!

    Anvil.

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