Saturday, February 07, 2009

a very old neighbour

Around 3/16 of my ancestors are from the Hunsrück area between the rivers Moselle, Rhine, and Nahe in Germany. Apart from beer, wine, gemstones and a few fossils, not much of note has emerged from there.

So I was very surprised to find the area mentioned in this week's issue of Science magazine. It turns out that a strange arthropod similar to those that were found in masses in the Burgess Shale in Canada has now been identified in a piece of slate from the quarry at Bundenbach (which is literally the next village up the creek from where my grandparents used to live and where my dad lives now). The beast, just under 10 cm long, looks like this:

Obviously, there are hundreds of similar fossils in the literature, but what got this one into Science is the fact that it is clearly in the wrong layer of geological time. Gabriele Kühl from the University of Bonn and her colleagues conclude that this fossil extends the life span of the Burgess Shale fauna (Mid Cambrian, i.e. around 500 million years old) by a cool 100 million years. That is quite spectacular, and it suggests that the lack of other fossils doesn't mean that the beasties died out very quickly. More likely, conditions weren't right for their preservation.

In a nod to local history, the researchers called the animal Schinderhannes bartelsi. Schinderhannes was a notorious outlaw in that area at the end of the 18th century. Very clever, as the little animal seems to have been a predator, too. Oh, and Christoph Bartels is a law-abiding expert on Hunsrück slate fossils.

One of the authors of the paper is Derek Briggs, who was among the original graduate students (with Simon Conway Morris) of Harry Blackmore Whittington, whose work made the Burgess Shale fauna famous. Its role in evolution has fuelled controversies between Stephen Jay Gould's school of thinking (evolution in leaps and bounds) and Richard Dawkins's camp (more gradual evolution).

Reference: G. Kühl et al. Science 2009, 323, 771

1 comment:

SraEllie said...

No, I hadn't. It doesn't look like anybody that I've seen on this side of the pond. Come to think of it, I didn't see anybody on your side of the pond that resembled it, either.

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