500 Million Year-Old Fossils Solve a Centuries-Old Riddle in the Evolution of Life on Earth

Artist’s Reconstruction of Gangtoucunia Aspera

Artist’s reconstruction of Gangtoucunia aspera as it would have appeared in life on the Cambrian seafloor, circa 514 million years ago. The individual in the foreground has part of the skeleton removed to show the soft polyp inside the skeleton. Credit: Reconstruction by Xiaodong Wang

Scientists have finally solved a centuries-old riddle in the evolution of life on earth, revealing what the first animals to make skeletons looked like. This discovery was possible due to an exceptionally well-preserved collection of fossils discovered in eastern Yunnan Province, China. The results of the research were published on November 2 in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

During an event called the Cambrian Explosion around 550-520 million years ago, the first animals to build hard and robust skeletons appear suddenly in the fossil record in a geological blink of an eye. Many of these early fossils are simple hollow tubes ranging from a few millimeters to many centimeters in length. However, what sort of animals made these skeletons was almost completely unknown, because they lack preservation of the soft parts needed to identify them as belonging to major groups of animals that are still alive today.

Gangtoucunia aspera Diagram

Fossil specimen (left) and diagram (right) of Gangtoucunia aspera preserving soft tissues, including the gut and tentacle. Credit: Luke Parry and Guangxu Zhang

Four specimens of Gangtoucunia aspera with soft tissues still intact, including the gut and mouthparts, are included in the new collection of 514 million-year-old fossils. These reveal that this species had a mouth fringed with a ring of smooth, unbranched tentacles about 5 mm (0.2 inches) long. It’s likely that these were used to sting and capture prey, such as small arthropods. The fossils also show that Gangtoucunia had a blind-ended gut (open only at one end), partitioned into internal cavities, that filled the length of the tube.

These are features found today only in modern jellyfish, anemones, and their close relatives (known as cnidarians), organisms whose soft parts are extremely rare in the fossil record. The study shows that these simple animals were among the first to build the hard skeletons that make up much of the known fossil record.

According to the researchers, Gangtoucunia would have looked similar to modern scyphozoan jellyfish polyps, with a hard tubular structure anchored to the underlying substrate. The tentacle mouth would have extended outside the tube, but could have been retracted inside the tube to avoid predators. Unlike living jellyfish polyps, however, the tube of Gangtoucunia was made of calcium phosphate, a hard mineral that makes up our own teeth and bones. Use of this material to build skeletons has become more rare among animals over time.

Gangtoucunia aspera Mouth Region

Close up photograph of the mouth region of Gangtoucunia aspera showing the tentacles that would have been used to capture prey. Credit: Luke Parry and Guangxu Zhang

Corresponding author Dr. Luke Parry, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, said: “This really is a one-in-million discovery. These mysterious tubes are often found in groups of hundreds of individuals, but until now they have been regarded as ‘problematic’ fossils, because we had no way of classifying them. Thanks to these extraordinary new specimens, a key piece of the evolutionary puzzle has been put firmly in place.”

The new specimens clearly demonstrate that Gangtoucunia was not related to annelid worms (earthworms, polychaetes and their relatives) as had been previously suggested for similar fossils. It is now clear that Gangtoucunia’s body had a smooth exterior and a gut partitioned longitudinally, whereas annelids have segmented bodies with transverse partitioning of the body.

The fossil was found at a site in the Gaoloufang section in Kunming, eastern Yunnan Province, China. Here, anaerobic (oxygen-poor) conditions limit the presence of bacteria that normally degrade soft tissues in fossils.

Gangtoucunia aspera Fossils

Fossil specimen of Gangtoucunia aspera preserving soft tissues, including the gut and tentacles (left and middle). The drawing at the right illustrates the visible anatomical features in the fossil specimens. Credit: Luke Parry and Guangxu Zhang

PhD student Guangxu Zhang, who collected and discovered the specimens, said: “The first time I discovered the pink soft tissue on top of a Gangtoucunia tube, I was surprised and confused about what they were. In the following month, I found three more specimens with soft tissue preservation, which was very exciting and made me rethink the affinity of Gangtoucunia. The soft tissue of Gangtoucunia, particularly the tentacles, reveals that it is certainly not a priapulid-like worm as previous studies suggested, but more like a coral, and then I realised that it is a cnidarian.”

Although the fossil clearly shows that Gangtoucunia was a primitive jellyfish, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that other early tube-fossil species looked very different. From Cambrian rocks in Yunnan province, the research team has previously found well-preserved tube fossils that could be identified as priapulids (marine worms), lobopodians (worms with paired legs, closely related to arthropods today), and annelids.

Co-corresponding author Xiaoya Ma (Yunnan University and University of Exeter) said: “A tubicolous mode of life seems to have become increasingly common in the Cambrian, which might be an adaptive response to increasing predation pressure in the early Cambrian. This study demonstrates that exceptional soft-tissue preservation is crucial for us to understand these ancient animals.”

Reference: “Exceptional soft tissue preservation reveals a cnidarian affinity for a Cambrian phosphatic tubicolous enigma” by Guangxu Zhang, Luke A. Parry, Jakob Vinther and Xiaoya Ma, 2 November 2022, Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.
DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2022.1623

30 Comments on "500 Million Year-Old Fossils Solve a Centuries-Old Riddle in the Evolution of Life on Earth"

  1. Oh really? I thought the world was only about 6000 years old cause of like..God and then Jesus fellow? Did God just plant this evidence of hard scientific fact just to peak our curiosity? lol Sarcasm aside, great article, very interesting.


    • Here’s my 2 cents:
      There is a human written history dating back 6,000-10,000* years ago. But that, of course, is not the age of the earth…or it could be.

      But I don’t think we know the age of this earth. It could be 6,000 years old or it could 6 Kazillion years old.

      When carefully reading Genesis, it is noted that there is never any time element discussed with Adam and Eve during the Garden of Eden period. We don’t know how long they lived there in perfect harmony with God.

      It is only after they are banned from the Garden that then the Scriptures begin to speak about time element and ages.

      *dependent upon research study.

  2. Dumb. What these fossils with soft tissues still intact actually show is that there is no possible way they are 515 million years old.

    • I think you may have got the wrong idea, Bob.
      The soft tissue was not still ‘soft’… it had fossilised. As the article mentions, that occurrence is very rare, on top of the already rear fossilization of hard structures.

      • See my post. Quantum entanglement. One particle a quark changes what it does based on what happens to the other so that both particles display the same behavior regardless where they are a trillion miles apart or when they are even in the past. Quantum uncertainty where a particle exists in multiple states until it is observed then changes what it’s doing based simply on it being observed by a conscious mind. This is cutting edge science computers are being built right now based on these things. Check the theory of the cat in the box being both dead and alive at the same time but only exists as either one or the other based on someone observing it.Time can travel at varied rates depending where you are in the universe soup or time can also not exist at all. Wrap your mind around that genius. But intelligent design is unbelievable?

        • Yeah I agree, MUCH more to the universe than humans (or any other intelligent species in the galaxy and universe) will EVER know. It’s such a massive area and everything is different depending on where you are located at the “time”. Something that is true for one solar system/galaxy can be completely different in the next. That’s why Einstein’s theories don’t work on a quantum level.

          I agree that the quantum entanglement and theories are HARD to digest and wrap the brain around, but until something can actually be DISPROVEN, then anything is possible. I’ve also heard that the ONLY way our universe makes sense mathematically, is if it’s nothing more than a hologram and what we see in front of us is only in our imagination and minds.

          The Matrix movies might’ve actually gotten it semi-right in that whatever we live in our brains is considered real or “conscious”. I’ve personally been reading LOTS of articles about consciousness and the various quantum theories and it’s VERY VERY interesting. But again, the quantum theories that DO make sense in our environment could be completely different in another environment.

          And as far as things being the same no matter the distance in-between, LOVE is a great example. Two people can be billions of miles apart, but STILL feel the same love they have for each other.

          And for anyone not believing in intelligent design and other intelligent species throughout the universe, i say, just do the math and keep an open mind!

    • See my posts and replies Bob. I’m not 100% on the 6000 years or the 7 days. I’m just saying there seems to be way more to understanding the universe than simply assuming they know everything just because they found some bones. Big whoop. These people that attack believers of intelligent design have some oddly misplaced anger. Have a nice day sir. Appreciate your comment.

  3. “Here, anaerobic (oxygen-poor) conditions limit the presence of bacteria that normally degrade soft tissues in fossils.” But, the enclosing sediments are clearly oxidized. Anaerobic sediments are dark because organic matter is preserved. If these tubes are made of calcium phosphate they are unlike most of the rest of the Cambrian biota..carbonates. To attribute certain features to predation pressure implies other animals better adapted.to be the predators.

    • “To attribute certain features to predation pressure implies other animals better adapted.to be the predators.”
      No, it does not. Mosquitoes prey upon us. Are they “better adapted to be predators” than us? The whole concept is silly.
      Plus, the scenario in the article is one of scavenging, not predation.

  4. PLEASE do not say “with soft tissues still intact”.
    They were not. They were fossilized.
    You can see the comments that one creationist fool has already glommed on to your mistake.

  5. The idea of intelligent design (creationist) is laughable? However current quantum science suggesting reality is dependent on consciousness (uncertainty principle) is not? Or leading minds suggesting the universe is a huge simulation based on the intricate mathematics built in to it. 70 % of the universe is made of something we can’t see. The entire universe explodes from nothing? The fabric of space made of time and can very by gravity or time can be non existent at all. We can accept these things but not intelligent design? Einstein said physics is the search for the proof of God’s existence. Everytime an anti-creationist opens their mouth it’s a sure sign of their being uneducated and dull. Trying to win some high fives from the vulgar masses. Expand your mind to the possibility this is all way beyond our scope of comprehension.

  6. Great and very interesting article. And I agree, I’d change the article to say “soft tissues have been fossilized” not “still in tact”. As you see, some people just like being idiots and finding faults in everything, as the one commenter (Bob) clearly shows us LoL 😂

  7. Think Ill stay with God created man and woman. I especially wouldn’t trust anything coming from china

  8. It’s amazing how we can find all this hard proof evidence suggesting how old earth is and how animals and humans have evolved over the centuries but yet there are still people out there that will adamantly back the theory of adam and eve. If Adam and Eve were the first people them who the hell are those people found presented in ice and the different types of “humans” that have developed then gone extinct. How do they explain those people? This is why I don’t really believe in the bible. There have been little evidence of adam and eve but numerously large amounts of evidence proving evolution. If Adam and Eve were first then the ones we found would look normal, more like is today. I hate blind faith. There’s nothing that back that.

  9. *preserved not presented.
    *It’s today not is today.

  10. *preserved. Not presented
    *Us today. Not is today

  11. Mark Schroeder | November 6, 2022 at 5:19 pm | Reply

    Fantastic discovery. Kudos to the palaeontologists who are expanding our understanding of Cambrian biota and the evolutionary tree.

  12. Mark Schroeder | November 6, 2022 at 5:29 pm | Reply

    I love how idiots like to thank all people who believe in god think the world is 6000 yrs old but believe we use to be monkeys

  13. So it’s a Graboid. cool

  14. Why can’t we get along guys…it seems to me like every archaeological controversy flares up into a street gang fight have we learned nothing from Tupac and biggie?…we have to learn to set our differences aside and allow the facts to speak for themselves which plainly state the world is a simulation and I should’ve been made king…. Based on reason and logic!… No further questions…dismissed…

  15. Why are you folks reading Science articles if you don’t believe in Science?

  16. Who is to say how long a “day” was in the process of creation. It could have been billions or trillions of years of evolution. I do not find the existence of God and the proof of evolution as mutually exclusive. Perhaps the bible applies to This particular reboot of the earth. Consider the massive environmental changes and extinction events the earth has been through in all those billions and trillions of years. Why can’t both of these things be real. If God is real then anything is possible. And I believe that both God and evolution are real, and that evolution is part of the “grand design”, whether mathematical or spiritual in nature – and those are not mutually exclusive either.

  17. There is zero evidence for the existence of god. The concept of god the creator also has no explanatory value. If god created everything, then who created god? And who created the entity that created the entity that created god? And so on ad infinitum. The bible is a book that contains scattered historical information, but it’s riddled with fairytales and superstitions. Science is a process of learning about the world via the scientific method. It doesn’t assert absolute Facts (upper case), but rather facts (lower case) which change when more explanatory evidence is found. Absolutists are stuck with one explanation. When presented with new or alternative evidence, absolutists try to explain it away with various interpretations of bible verses. No thank you. I’ll stick with science. It won’t give me make believe unfounded absolute answers, but it will give me an honest way to find out how the world probably works. Honest questions are better than fairytale answers.

  18. They done took er jerbs!

  19. The drawing at the top of the page. I found a place where they are fossilized on rocks. In an old creek. Many yrs ago i took a rock with them on it to my science teacher. She said that they were really old and grew in deep water. I found them in middle Tennessee, in a creek. If you want some i can tell you where they are.

  20. I believe in both, God and creationism aren’t mutually exclusive. NO where in the Bible does it say how old the earth is, and yes I have read it, and NO where does it state how long a day is to God in the beginning when He was creating everything.

  21. I clicked on this article because I believe in science but my understanding of science isn’t based on what I have read. Hell, just reading the comments was an experience on its own. No one is wrong and no one is right, right? I love science and I love idk the fact that I know I am more thankful about reading the damn comments lol and laughing at all the arguments (no offense to those who got me in the crosshairs lol). Nah go ahead and shoot, it’s all part of the here, the now, it’s you. Y’all all f***ing nuts but I love it. Damn nerds love ya .°•

  22. Raymond Hughes | November 11, 2022 at 5:56 pm | Reply

    A very powerful discovery, but a depiction of multicell organisms evolving from singlecell organisms in water, any depth of water is not possible. This image is not natural for the beginning of mobility of land organisms.

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