The world’s oldest known starfish, dating back 480 million years, has been discovered in Morocco and provides the “ missing link ” between modern floral creatures and their ancestors.
- The fossil sample was extracted from rocky rocks in the Anti-Atlas Mountains
- Experts called the newly identified species “Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis”
- It had five feather arms that were wider than those of modern starfish
- The discovery may help shed light on how starfish and related animals evolved
A study reported that the fossil starfish discovered in Morocco that dates back 480 million years is the “missing link” between modern floral organisms and their ancestors.
Experts from Cambridge said the fossil – discovered from inside the so-called shale shale at Vuzuata in the Small Atlas Mountains – is the oldest known starfish.
It dates back to a period in Earth’s history – the so-called Ordovician Biodiversity Event – when life suddenly expanded.
The researchers said the previous competitor for the oldest specimen of starfish was 50 million years younger.
Due to the scientific name “Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis,” the ancient species had an intricate design, with feathered arms still visible in their fossil specimens.
The beautifully preserved remains will allow paleontologists to map the body of the new species in detail – and illuminate how starfish evolved.
A study reported that the fossil starfish (pictured) discovered in Morocco that dates back 480 million years is the “missing link” between modern flower organisms and their ancestors.
“Finding this missing link with their ancestors is very exciting,” said evolutionary paleontologist Aaron Hunter of the University of Cambridge.
“If you went back in time and put your head under the surface of the sea in the Ordovician, you wouldn’t recognize any marine creatures – except for starfish, they are among the earliest modern animals.”
According to the researchers, C. fezouataensis lacks about 60 percent of the features of a modern starfish’s body outline – instead it looks like a hybrid between a starfish and a crinoid, or “sea lily.”
Sea lilies are filter feeders with wavy armament that resemble plants in that they are attached to the sea floor via a cylindrical “stem”.
“The level of detail in the fossil is amazing – its structure is so complex that it took us some time to discover its significance,” said Dr. Hunter.
In their study, Dr. Hunter and his colleague Javier Ortega Hernandez – formerly also in Cambridge, now based at Harvard University in the US – examined a catalog of hundreds of starfish-like animals along with C. fezouataensis.
They cataloged all of their physical features in order to assess how the fossil species related to other members of the family echinoderms – a variety including sea cucumbers and starfish.
Like most modern species, the fossil has a pentagonal symmetry – but this ancestral shape had broad arms with an almost pentagonal outline.
The team plans to expand their work on other early echinoderms.
Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis dates back to a period in Earth’s history – the so-called Ordovician Biodiversification Event – when life suddenly expanded
According to the researchers, C. fezouataensis lacks about 60 percent of the features of a modern starfish’s body outline – it instead looks like a hybrid between a starfish and a “sea lily”.
Dr. Hunter commented, “One of the things we hope to answer in the future is why the starfish has developed its five arms.”
“It appears to be a stable form for them to adopt – but we don’t yet know why.”
“We still need to continue looking for the fossil that gives us that specific link – but going straight back to early ancestors like Cantabregiaster, we’re getting close to that answer.”
The full results of the study have been published in the journal Biology Letters.
“Finding this missing link with their ancestors is very exciting,” said evolutionary paleontologist Aaron Hunter of the University of Cambridge. Pictured is researchers searching for fossils of starfish in the Vzuata rock (left) from the Atlas Mountains (right)
Experts from Cambridge said that the fossil – discovered from the site (Mubarraz) inside the so-called shale shale in the Vzuata of the Small Atlas Mountains – is the oldest known starfish