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In 1983, researchers discovered a new and strange-looking species. The creature is so strange in appearance – it does not resemble any other species, alive or extinct – that it took scientists nearly thirty years to figure out how to exactly describe its appearance and hypothesize how it lived.
Named Siphustacum gregarium (and nicknamed the tulip animal), the creature was found the Burgess Shale fossil bed, located in the Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
So far, researchers have collected 1,000 specimens. Many of the fossils were found in bunches, hinting that the tulip-like creature tended to live in clusters. According the press release published on the University of Toronto’s website, as many as sixty-five specimens were found in clumps in each uncovered slab of slate.
Fossils of other animals were also found in the fossil bed, though all have primitive structures compared to the tulip animal’s, which is nearly as complex as the jellyfish’s. Researchers at the Royal Ontario Museum speculate that the tulip-like animal was soft-bodied and lived on the ocean floors 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian period.
It is tiny – only eight inches (20 centimeters) in length. Its upper body is an enclosed chalyx (a chalice-like structure), with a stem-like appendage sticking out. On the underside of the chalyx, which served as the feeding and digestive systems, are six small holes, possibly where the creature sucked in water and food particles. At the end of the stem is a small disk, used as an anchor to hold onto the ocean floor.
“Most interesting is that this feeding system appears to be unique among animals,” says Lorna O’Brien says in the University of Toronto press release. O’Brien is the lead author of the paper published on the online science journal PLoS ONE and a PhD candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto.
“Recent advances have linked many bizarre Burgess Shale animals as primitive members of many animal groups that are found today, but Siphusauctum defies this trend. We do not know where it fits in relation to other organisms.”
“Perhaps there are different species related to this animal to better understand what it is,” Jean-Bernard Caron – the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the museum – tells the Calgary Herald in an article. “Maybe other discoveries elsewhere in the world will help us. The other possibility remains equally intriguing. Perhaps this represents a group of organisms that we didn’t know before.”