Evolution in Action Revealed by Stunning New Starfish-Like Fossil

Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis

Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis from the Lower Ordovician (Tremadocian) Fezouata Shale, Zagora Morocco. Credit: Collections of the Claude Bernard University Lyon 1

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have discovered a fossil of the earliest starfish-like animal, which helps us understand the origins of the nimble-armed creature.

The prototype starfish, which has features in common with both sea lilies and modern-day starfish, is a missing link for scientists trying to piece together its early evolutionary history.

The exceptionally preserved fossil, named Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis, was discovered in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas mountain range. Its intricate design – with feathery arms akin to a lacework – has been frozen in time for roughly 480 million years.

The new species is unusual because it doesn’t have many of the key features of its contemporary relatives, lacking roughly 60% of a modern starfish’s body plan.

The fossil’s features are instead a hybrid between those of a starfish and a sea lily or crinoid — not a plant but a wavy-armed filter feeder which fixes itself to the seabed via a cylindrical ‘stem’.

The discovery, reported in Biology Letters, captures the early evolutionary steps of the animal at a time in Earth’s history when life suddenly expanded, a period known as the Ordovician Biodiversification Event.

Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis Reconstruction

Reconstruction of Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis by Madmeg. Credit: Madmeg

The find also means scientists can now use the new find as a template to work out how it evolved from this more basic form to the complexity of their contemporaries.

“Finding this missing link to their ancestors is incredibly exciting. If you went back in time and put your head under the sea in the Ordovician then you wouldn’t recognize any of the marine organisms — except the starfish, they are one of the first modern animals,” said lead author Dr Aaron Hunter, a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences.

Modern starfish and brittle stars are part of a family of spiny-skinned animals called the echinoderms which, although they don’t have a backbone, are one of the closest group of animals to vertebrates. Crinoids, and otherworldly creatures like the sea urchins and sea cucumbers are all echinoderms.

Fezouata Fossil Site in Morocco

The Fezouata fossil site in Morocco, where Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis was uncovered. Credit: University of Cambridge

The origin of starfish has eluded scientists for decades. But the new species is so well preserved that its body can finally be mapped in detail and its evolution understood. “The level of detail in the fossil is amazing – its structure is so complex that it took us a while to unravel its significance,” said Hunter.

It was Hunter’s work on both living and fossil echinoderms that helped him spot its hybrid features. “I was looking at a modern crinoid in one of the collections at the Western Australian Museum and I realized the arms looked really familiar, they reminded me of this unusual fossil that I had found years earlier in Morocco but had found difficult to work with,” he said.

Fezouata in Morocco is something of a holy grail for paleontologists — the new fossil is just one of the many remarkably well preserved soft-bodied animals uncovered from the site.

Hunter and co-author Dr. Javier Ortega-Hernández, who was previously based at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and is now based at Harvard University, named the species Cantabrigiaster in honor of the long history of echinoderm research at their respective institutions.

Hunter and Ortega-Hernández examined their new species alongside a catalog of hundreds of starfish-like animals. They indexed all of their body structures and features, building a road map of the echinoderm skeleton which they could use to assess how Cantabrigiaster was related to other family members.

Modern echinoderms come in many shapes and sizes, so it can be difficult to work out how they are related to one another. The new analysis, which uses extra-axial theory – a biology model usually only applied to living species – meant that Hunter and Ortega-Hernández could identify similarities and differences between the body plan of modern echinoderms and then figure out how each family member was linked to their Cambrian ancestors.

They found that only the key or axial part of the body, the food groove – which funnels food along each of the starfish’s arms – was present in Cantabrigiaster. Everything outside this, the extra-axial body parts, were added later.

The authors plan to expand their work in search of early echinoderms. “One thing we hope to answer in the future is why starfish developed their five arms,” said Hunter. “It seems to be a stable shape for them to adopt – but we don’t yet know why. We still need to keep searching for the fossil that gives us that particular connection, but by going right back to the early ancestors like Cantabrigiaster we are getting closer to that answer.”

Reference: “A new somasteroid from the Fezouata Lagerstätte in Morocco and the Early Ordovician origin of Asterozoa” by Aaron W. Hunter and Javier Ortega-Hernández, 20 January 2021, Biology Letters.
DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2020.0809

2 Comments on "Evolution in Action Revealed by Stunning New Starfish-Like Fossil"

  1. Babu G. Ranganathan | January 31, 2021 at 3:32 pm | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    THE NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION

    ONLY LIMITED EVOLUTION (micro-evolution or evolution within biological “kinds”) is genetically possible (such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.), but not macro-evolution, or evolution across biological “kinds,” (such as from sea sponge to human). All real evolution in nature is simply the expression, over time, of already existing genes or variations of already existing genes. For example, we have breeds of dogs today that we didn’t have a few hundred years ago. The genes for these breeds had always existed in the dog population but never had opportunity before to be expressed. Only limited evolution, variations of already existing genes and traits, is possible.

    The genes (chemical instructions or code) for a trait must first exist or otherwise the trait cannot come into existence. Genes instruct the body to build our tissues and organs. Nature is mindless and has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new traits.

    Evolutionists believe that, if given millions of years, accidents in the genetic code of species caused by the environment will generate entirely new code making evolution possible from one type of life to another. It’s much like believing that by randomly changing the sequence of letters in a romance novel, over millions of years, can turn the novel into a book on astronomy! Not to worry. We’ll address the issue of “Junk DNA” in a moment.

    WHAT ABOUT NATURAL SELECTION? Natural selection doesn’t produce biological traits or variations. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value.

    HOW COULD SPECIES HAVE SURVIVED if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems, etc. were still evolving? A partially evolved trait or organ that is not complete and fully integrated and functioning from the start would be a liability to a species, not a survival asset. Plants and animals in the process of macro-evolution would be unfit for survival. For example, “if a leg of a reptile were to evolve (over supposedly millions of years) into a wing of a bird, it would become a bad leg long before it became a good wing” (Dr. Walt Brown, scientist and creationist). Survival of the fittest actually would have prevented evolution across biological kinds!

    NEW SPECIES BUT NOT NEW DNA: Although it’s been observed that new species have come into existence, they don’t carry any new genes. They’ve become new species only because they can’t be crossed back with the original parent stock for various biological reasons. A biological “kind” allows for new species but not new genes. Nature has no ability to invent new genes for new traits. Only limited variations and adaptations are possible in nature, and all strictly within a biological “kind” (i.e. varieties of dogs, cats, etc.).

    Dr. Randy J. Guliuzza’s extensive research points to a better explanation than natural selection for variation and adaptation in nature. Dr. Guliuzza explains that species have pre-engineered mechanisms that enable organisms to continuously track and respond to environmental changes with system elements that correspond to human-designed tracking systems. This model is called CET (continuous environmental tracking). His research strongly indicates that living things have been pre-engineered to produce the right adaptations and changes required to live in changing environments. It’s much like a car that’s been pre-engineered so that the head lights turn on automatically when day changes to night.

    What about genetic and biological similarities between species? Genetic information, like other forms of information, cannot happen by chance, so it is more logical to believe that genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life are due to a common Designer who designed similar functions for similar purposes. It doesn’t mean all forms of life are biologically related! Only genetic similarities within a natural species proves relationship because it’s only within a natural species that members can interbreed and reproduce.

    Many people have wrong ideas of how evolution is supposed to work. Physical traits and characteristics are determined and passed on by genes – not by what happens to our body parts. For example, if a woman were to lose her finger this wouldn’t affect how many fingers her baby will have. Changing the color and texture of your hair will not affect the color and texture of your children’s hair. So, even if an ape or ape-like creature’s muscles and bones changed so that it could walk upright it still would not be able to pass on this trait to its offspring. Only changes or mutations that occur in the genetic code of reproductive cells (i.e. sperm and egg) can be passed on to offspring.

    What about the new science of epigenetics? Epigenetics involves inheritable factors which can turn already-existing genes on, but epigenetics doesn’t create new genes.

    Most biological variations are from new combinations of already existing genes, not mutations. Mutations are accidents in the genetic code caused by nature (i.e. environmental radiation), are mostly harmful, and have no capability of producing greater complexity in the code. Even if a good accident occurred, for every good one there would be hundreds of harmful ones with the net result, over time, being harmful, even lethal, to the species. Even if a single mutation is not immediately harmful, the accumulation of mutations over time will be harmful to the species resulting in extinction. At very best, mutations only produce further variations within a natural species.

    All species of plants and animals in the fossil record are found complete, fully formed, and fully functional. This is powerful evidence that all species came into existence as complete and fully formed from the beginning. This is only possible by creation.

    God began with a perfect and harmonious creation. Even all the animals were vegetarian (Genesis 1:30) in the beginning and did not struggle for survival nor kill and devour each other. Macro-evolutionary theory does not begin with a perfect and harmonious creation as the Bible states. The Bible and macro-evolutionary theory cannot both be true.

    All the fossils that have been used to support human evolution have been found to be either hoaxes, non-human, or human, but not non-human and human (i.e. Neanderthal Man was discovered later to be fully human).

    There has never been unanimous agreement among evolutionary scientists on ANY fossil evidence that has been used to support human evolution over the many years, Including LUCY.

    The actual similarity between ape and human DNA is between 70-87% not 99.8% as commonly believed. The original research stating 99.8% similarity was based on ignoring contradicting evidence. Only a certain segment of DNA between apes and humans was compared, not the entire DNA genome.

    Also, so-called “Junk DNA” isn’t junk. Although these “non-coding” segments of DNA don’t code for proteins, they have recently been found to be vital in regulating gene expression (i.e. when, where, and how genes are expressed, so they’re not “junk”). Also, there is evidence that, in certain situations, they can code for protein.

    ARE FOSSILS REALLY MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD? (Internet article by author)

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION (This site answers many arguments, both old and new, that have been used by evolutionists to support their theory)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

  2. Jerry Boysen | March 22, 2021 at 8:07 am | Reply

    Vertebra, possibly chicken tail bone or neck, I found with trilobites, cystoids, and thousands of other micro fossils. I also did some research on some possible land animals and right now Chicken is the best. There were some imbedded in some coral reef with trilobites, cystoids, blastoids, feather star, over a hundred species of crinoids ( one is about 11 feet in length), fusilinia, several species of star fish, and a large quantity of bryozoans and coral (all with the vertebra. And Thousands more, I just love to fossil hunt. One area I fossil hunt is the edge of Permian and Pennsylvanian Periods. If you are interested I could show you of a large quantity of other fossils from Cambrian to Pennsylvanian to Cretaceous periods. I need a micron microscope to prove that a leaf I found has trichomes, but also, four star fish (ten to fifteen times larger than trichomes) and identical to leaves on the surface today. I had been using the micron micrscope at East Field College, but, due to C- virus-19 I can not. I also may have some actual pieces (tines and segments) of your star fish I found about three years ago.

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