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Vetulicola cuneata

Vetulicola cuneata is your textbook example of an enigma wrapped in a riddle, or rather, a shoe-shaped enigma wrapped in a carbonaceous film, sandwiched between layers of a lovely beige shale.  But first, a bit of context.  One theme among Cambrian arthropods is to have two halves of the carapace cloak the head and the forebody.  So, when the first specimens of V. cuneata were described in 1987 from the Early Cambrian-aged Chengjiang Fauna, they were appraised to be bivalved arthropods similar to Waptia, a genus of shrimp-like bivalved arthropod that haunts both the Burgess Shale and the Chengjiang Faunas.

Further scrutiny of these and additional fossils quickly demonstrated that Vetulicola cuneata was not an arthropod, bivalved or otherwise, as the carapace did not articulate correctly, and more importantly, the carapace had gill slits diagnostic of basal deuterostomes.  These fossils also showed what appeared to be a spiral gut running the length of the tail: in 2014, the study of the Kangaroo Island vetulicolian, Nesonektris, revealed that this structure to be a notochord, placing Vetulicolia squarely within Chordata.  Once the carapace was understood to house a voluminous pharynx, Vetulicolia is now thought to be either in or related to Urochordata.

With its blade-like keel, and its paddle-like tail, the nektonic lifestyle of V. cuneata seems unmistakable.  How it found its way around, however, remains a mystery, as the beastie does not appear to have any visible (or external) sensory organs.  Even though V. cuneata is one of the most populous species in a diverse Chinese dynasty of primitive chordates found in Early Cambrian Yunnan, it remains a painfully enigmatic creature.  Like, are individuals of V. cuneata and V. rectangulata different genders of the same species?  (At the moment, probably not.)



The Louvar, Luvaris imperialis, is a brain-pink perch that lives in deep, subtropical to tropical waters throughout the world.  As the specific epithet imperialis directly implies, the louvar is regarded as an emperor among fishes by sports fishermen for its entertaining fighting ability when hooked, and, more importantly, by everyone who has had the envious pleasure of having tasted its oh so delicious flesh.  In most species, having humanity, or even a small, specific subset, declare a species “delicious” is a creeping doom of a death sentence.  Not so with the louvar: because it is a solitary animal with a population scattered hither and yon, forming a louvar-themed fisher is simply unfeasible.  The toll currently taken on louvar populations by being taken as by-catch in other fisheries, and by sports fishermen are, according to marine biologists, negligible.

Genomic analyses place the louvar squarely as a close relative of the surgeonfishes.  The louvar’s childhood, which is spent looking like a polka-dot tang, complete with functional tailblades and anal fins modified into a bolo tie, confirm these analyses.  Fossils suggest the louvars and Acanthuridae went their separate ways in the depths of the Paleocene, some 60 million-ish years ago, as the first fossil louvars, such as Luvarus necopinatus, and Avitoluvarus of the Danata Formation in Turkmenistan, and Beerichthys of the Isle of Sheppey’s London Clay, already looked very similar to modern louvars, and were probably already munching on salps, and jellies, and other gelatinous, planktonic poobahs like their imperial grandchild, too.

An unbearably odd animal, named after Peter L. Forey and Max Kuhni, that lived in Monte San Giorgio, of Canton Ticino when both Switzerland and Italy were under the ocean, off the coast of Pangaea.  This globe-headed eccentric is in the same family as the modern coelacanths, Latimeria sp., and is, according to anatomical arcana, most closely related to the more normal looking extinct coelacanth, Ticinepomis, which also lived in Monte San Giorgio with Foreyia.

The science of Allometry, which is the biology of how (animal) life as we know it is as we know it due to the correlation of body size to body shape, easily shows that all of Foreyia’s grotesque features are naught but funhouse mirror modifications of features seen in Ticinepomis.

Of course, why a salmon-faced fish in a notoriously form-conservative group like the coelacanthids would evolve a head shaped like a parrot that stifled the world’s biggest sneeze is a very important question to ponder.  It may be that becoming a carefully maneuverable, slow swimmer opened up new opportunities, or at least lessened competition pressures normally seen by swift fisheaters.  Instead of fish, Foreyia may have snipped fronds of algae or encrusting animals, or nibbled on invertebrates.  What purpose the low crest high upon its globular head served, however, one may never know.

Athenaegis chattertoni

This creature is known from a single, five centimeter long fossil specimen from Silurian-aged shales at Avalanche Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada.  In life, this potato-shaped creature would have looked like an absurd lovechild of a cherimoya and a bathtub submarine, leisurely swimming about while casually sipping plankton out of the water column, or sucking detritus out of the substrate.  In death, burial, and then fossilization, the beast now resembles a shiny, blackened latke made of obsidian scales.

It is named Athenaegis because the scientists who studied it likened the complex patterns of textures on its ornate scales and dorsal shield to the snaky, eternally writhing locks of Medusa’s severed head adorning Athena’s breastplate.  Athenaegis embodies the stereotype of the overly armored Paleozoic (jawless) fish, and is one of the best known of Silurian heterostracan fishes.  A. chattertoni belongs to a subgroup called “Tolypelepidida,” a clique of crust-bearing, Canadian hoohaws who are the ancestors of the better known, pardon, less obscure Late Silurian and Early Devonian heterostracans: the Cyathaspidids, and their descendants, the Amphiaspidids, the Pteraspidids, and the Psammosteids.

When Athenaegis was alive, Avalanche Lake was at the bottom of a shallow sea very near the northern coast of the ancient continent of Laurentia.  Athenaegis‘ roccoco armor undoubtedly served to thwart predators, possibly eurypterids and large, fish-eating nautiloids.  Of course, this is merely an educated guess.  Actual identifications of nemeses obviously require more fossils with injuries causes by predators attempting to breach the armor in the first place, of course.

Lampago, part IV

“That’s the lamest hand-turkey I’ve ever seen!”  Duncan’s classmate Percy declared.  Duncan rolled his eyes.  He could feel the larger boy’s breath in his hair as Percy hovered over him.

“So are you going to help me improve by, like, helping me grow back my fingers?”  Duncan asked.

“Your lame hand-turkey is the lamest hand-turkey in the whole world!” Percy mocked.  “You deserve an F forever, lame-o!”

Duncan sighed.  So much for the lie about Art Class being some sort of sanctuary. View full article »

When Rudy arrived at Wigman’s Grocery, the store was already open and teeming with customers since sunrise. Not that it mattered to Rudy, as he hadn’t been assigned to help open the store for months. The mountain made an unobtrusive beeline to the back of the store, then clocked in. He pulled out his Wigman’s Grocery baseball cap as he shoved his dufflebag into his locker. He put his cap on as he hurried to the loading dock of the stockroom. Rudy was needed for his special talents, after all.

Despite having been an athlete and a photojournalist, Rudy got his current job as a box boy by calling on a favor owed to him by the store’s founder, Bernard Wigman Senior. Bernard Senior felt he owed Rudy dearly as Rudy was one of the few people who took the loving time to teach his beloved grandson how to be and stay a just and upstanding team player. In Rudy’s case, he systematically literally beat the teenage pomposity out of Bernard III in high school wrestling and high school football. Six years ago, upon hearing the tragic situation of Rudy and his family, Senior and III were both eager to offer condolences and assistance. Thus, over the overridden protests of the staunchly anti-sentimentalist Bernard Junior, Rudy “The Monster” Kaplan was made “Wigman’s Grocery’s Number One Box Boy,” a title Rudy held uncontested ever since. View full article »

On the far side of that squalid living room, Rudy fussed over a fourth-hand electric stove while Duncan sat half-awake at a card table, their father’s card table, waiting with a paper plate. Rudy looked passably human now that he shaved off his beard and muttonchops, put on his green Wigman’s Grocery shirt and apron, hid his paw-hands inside cheap gloves, hid his tail inside his black slacks, and squeezed his hindpaws into shoes. Duncan, meanwhile, looked pert in his school uniform of a blue vest over a black polo shit and khaki slacks.

“What’s for breakfast?” Duncan yawned.

“Scrambled eggs, Sparky,” the mountain cheerfully replied. He beamed as he doled out his brother’s share of the eggs, silently boastful over how human he made himself look. Rudy then sat down at his father’s card table and began eating his share of the eggs out of his frying pan, his mother’s frying pan, face first. Duncan examined his brother’s blatantly tigerine ear. He fished out a big, red handkerchief, no a blue bandanna, and tied it around the mountain’s head to hide the mountain’s tiger ears and shaggy hair. The mountain’s human disguise now complete, he paused to give his Sparky a quick hug and a snort of thanks.
View full article »

In a spartan, yet squalid living room of a spartan, yet squalid apartment, a cat poked its head through a gap in the cardboard-sealed window. It oozed onto the filthy yet barren floor, silently skittered towards a duct-tape upholstered couch, and leaped up onto it. The liquid animal seeped in between duct-taped cushions, and disappeared. Behind that miserable, tape-mummified couch in that miserable living room was a door leading to a miserably small bedroom. View full article »

The translucent body of the predatory tunicate, Megalodicopia hians, resembles a hand puppet, made of plastic, or perhaps a crude cartoon of a Venus flytrap.  Upon being told of this carnivorous deep sea beastie, Evolutionary Biology Professor David Morafka succinctly summarized it as “a rocket scientist among sea squirts.”

While the predatory tunicate may not be intelligent, it definitely possesses ambition, drive, and hunger unheard of among other urochordates.  The inhalant tube is enlarged and cavernous, inviting in any who can fit.  Any who accepts this invitation, generally a petite, shrimp-like crustacean, and dawdles in its tour will find itself trapped when the tunicate shuts the opening of its inhalant tube like a mouth.  Once trapped, the dinner guest languishes and eventually dies, whereupon its corpse is disintegrated into its component nutrients in the great lint trap of doom that is the predatory tunicate’s pharynx.  Then the inhalant tube reopens, and the beast resumes filter-feeding while waiting patiently to seize another opportunity to indulge in its sinister hobby of carnivory once more.

When a tunicate is a larva, its identity as a chordate is indisputable.  As a larva, a tunicate is a tadpole-like creature with a long tail supported by a notochord, and a head-like body possessing a mouth and an anus.  When it is time for metamorphosis, the larva glues itself headfirst to a species-specific appropriate substrate, its mouth and anus become its inhalant and exhalant tubes, respectively, its pharynx becomes a large, basket-like structure, and its tail and notochord are reabsorbed into nothingness.  The freeswimming salps forego cementing their heads, in order to, instead, bloat into gelatin sculptures.

The paedomorphic larvaceans are named so because they resemble and are descended from larval tunicates that never metamorphosized.  Larvaceans secrete strands of mucus from glands in their head which they weave into complex, brain-shaped orbs using water currents generated by their ever-beating tails in a profoundly sophisticated manner similar to the ritual of creating a bolus of cotton candy.  This structure, termed a “house,” is used to filter edible particles, in the case of Oikopleura dioica, unicellular algae, of a particular size out of water currents generated by the aforementioned ever-beating tail.  Once the house is too clogged, or too damaged to be of further use, the builder abandons it to build another.  In the case of the 1 millimeter long O. dioica, this means the animal will build a 4 millimeter diameter house created once every three to four hours over the course of a five day life cycle.

Once abandoned, these mucus “houses” then contribute a substantial portion of “marine snow,” a semi-eternal rain of macabre manna that feeds everything, directly or indirectly, caught in its descent to the sea floor.