Nicholas Strausfeld, Regents’ professor of neuroscience at the University of Arizona, is on a roll.
His most recent paper, in Nature Communications last week, announced the discovery of the world’s oldest preserved circulatory system — a fossilized shrimp-like creature that lived about 520 million years.
This follows recent papers by Strausfeld and his colleagues in China and England on the preserved brain of that same species — Fuxianhuia protensa — and the oldest known complete nervous system, found in an arthropod known as a megacheiran.
More announcements are in the works, Strausfeld said.
Another significant finding is currently in press and Strausfeld is headed back to China in May to have a look at two more fossil specimens which the team believes to be even older than the ones already found.
The discoveries all come from a region around Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province, which is proving to be a fertile site for fossils from the Cambrian Period, which hosted an explosion of evolutionary change in marine creatures, beginning about 540 million years ago.
For reasons that no one has yet puzzled out, the Kunming region is rich with fossils so well preserved that the “soft parts” — gut, muscle, brains and vascular systems — of the fossils stand out and can be reconstructed with 3-D imaging techniques.
“These fossils are hot and this is a hot area” for research, Strausfeld said. “They open a window onto an earlier age.”
The fossils are encased in mudstone, compacted fine sediment that leads Strausfeld to believe that catastrophic events — giant dust storms, undersea landslides or tsunamis, perhaps — caused the creatures to be smothered and preserved whole.
Strausfeld has gone on one dig in the region — a day spent cleaving samples along fracture lines to no avail.
Most specimens are brought to surrounding Chinese universities by area residents and workers in the phosphate mines of the region.
Strausfeld has formed a working relationship with colleagues at Yunnan Key Laboratory for Paleobiology in Kunming. He helps image the fossils, identify the preserved structures, and he provides the illustrations for the papers.
Strausfeld, director of the UA’s Center for Insect Science, is also an artist and illustrator, who has held an adjunct position in the UA’s School of Art.
The fossil work is adding another dimension. Strausfeld said he will give his first lecture on paleontology at a conference this spring.
Strausfeld studies the brains and nervous systems of insects to gain understanding of neurological development and processes.
The recent finds add weight to an evolving theory that complex brain structures, fed by equally elaborate vascular systems, provide the “ground pattern” for the nervous systems of contemporary arthropods and perhaps for vertebrates as well, including humans.
Co-authors of “An exceptionally preserved arthropod cardiovascular system from the early Cambrian” are Xiaoya Ma, Peiyun Cong and Xianguang Hou of the Yunnan Key Laboratory for Paleobiology at Yunnan University in Kunming, China, and Gregory D. Edgecombe of the Department of Earth Sciences at the The Natural History Museum in London.