Ancient Voracious Predator Species Found in Canadian Shale

Complete fossil (Holotype ROMIP 65078) of Cambroraster falcatus, showing the eyes and the body with paired swimming flaps below the large head carapace. The shale in which the fossil was entombed was split open, leaving parts of the body on both sides (right and left). (Jean-Bernard Caron / Royal Ontario Museum)

(CN) – Paleontologists announced Tuesday the discovery of fossils of a new predatory species with a shell resembling a famous Star Wars ship that may have been one of the earliest relatives of modern insects and crabs.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists said they discovered the Cambroraster falcatus from rocks dating back half-a-billion years. The species could reach up to a foot in length, according to the researchers.

“Its size would have been even more impressive at the time it was alive, as most animals living during the Cambrian Period were smaller than your little finger,” said Joe Moysiuk, study leader and graduate student at the Royal Ontario Museum. “Cambroraster was a distant cousin of the iconic Anomalocaris, the top predator living in the seas at that time, but it seems to have been feeding in a radically different way.”

The species featured a pineapple-slice-shaped mouth as well as rake-like claws. The first part of its name, Cambroraster, comes from its unique claws that have forward-directed rakes.

“We think Cambroraster may have used these claws to sift through sediment, trapping buried prey in the net-like array of hooked spines,” said Jean-Bernard Caron, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and leader of the field expeditions.

Arist reconstruction of the Cambroraster falcatus. (Lars Fields / Royal Ontario Museum)

The second part of its name, falcatus, comes the large shell covering its head that resembles the Millenium Falcon starship from the Star Wars movies. The scientists said they believe the shell may have been used for digging while the species hunted for food underground.

“With its broad head carapace with deep notches accommodating the upward facing eyes, Cambroraster resembles modern living bottom-dwelling animals like horseshoe crabs. This represents a remarkable case of evolutionary convergence in these radiodonts,” Moysiuk said.

Perhaps even more unique is the number of fossils paleontologists were able to uncover in the shale.

“The sheer abundance of this animal is extraordinary,” Caron said. “Over the past few summers we found hundreds of specimens, sometimes with dozens of individuals covering single rock slabs.”

Fossils recovered from the Cambrian period, which occurred between 541 and 485 million years ago, are noted for their biodiversity and early ancestors of what would evolve into modern animal life on the planet.

“The radiodont fossil record is very sparse; typically, we only find scattered bits and pieces. The large number of parts and unusually complete fossils preserved at the same place are a real coup, as they help us to better understand what these animals looked like and how they lived,” Caron said. “We are really excited about this discovery. Cambroraster clearly illustrates that predation was a big deal at that time with many kinds of surprising morphological adaptations.”

The fossils were discovered in the Marble Canyon area in Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, Canada.

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