The Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale of the Canadian Rockies is one of those celebrated sediments that show extraordinary preservation of soft-bodied and easily disarticulated organisms and rich assemblages of fossils. Being one of the earliest known of such lagerstätten, many of the denizens of the ecosystem in which the shale originated were at first regarded as members of hitherto undiscovered and now vanished phyla, the basal branches of the ‘tree of life’. Some certainly looked pretty odd, such as Opabina with a feeding apparatus looking similar to the extension nozzle of a vacuum cleaner; but that is clearly some kind of arthropod. Others turned out to be astonishingly large, once it was realised that parts of their broken bodies had previously been taken to be different organisms, an example being Anomalocaris. But perhaps the oddest, certainly to palaeontologists, was Hallucigenia. However, there are plenty of even more weird and wonderful living creatures, such as the sea pig, although modern creatures are more easily pigeonholed, taxonomically speaking.
The trouble with Hallucigenia was not so much its complexity – it was a fairly simple-looking beast – but that there were two choices as to which way up it lived; a feature that surprisingly led to a great deal of pondering that ended with the scientist who formally described it in 1977 making the wrong choice. That was eventually resolved fourteen years later, but the creature might also have inspired the Pushmi Pullyu in Hugh Lofting’s Dr Doolittle stories for children. Not that it resembled a unicorn-gazelle cross: far from it, for no-one could decide which its front was and which its backside, and even if it may have lain on its side. But Hallucigenia does demonstrate bilateral symmetry beautifully – it must have a front and back, and a top and bottom, even though which was which remained veiled in mystery – and so belongs to the dominant group of animals, imaginatively known as bilaterians.
The Burgess Shale lagerstätte seemingly was heaving with Hallucigenia so would-be taxonomists have had no shortage of specimens to ponder over in the 38 years since Simon Conway Morris made his dreadful mistake: of course, that was not of such enormity as Einstein’s ‘biggest blunder’ in the form of his cosmological constant, and Conway Morris quickly accepted his error when the beast was turned right-way-up in 1991. The problem is, exquisite as they are, Burgess Shale fossils are flattened and all that remains of mainly soft-bodied animals are delicate carbonaceous films, which need electron microscopy to unravel.
In 2015, Hallucigenia’s front end was definitely found and a great deal more besides by Canadian palaeontologists Martin Smith and Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto (Smith, M.R. & Caron J.-B. 2015. Hallucigenia’s head and the pharyngeal armature of early ecdysozoans. Nature, v. 523, p. 75-78). It has eyes, albeit rudimentary, and a throat, deep within which it has pointy teeth. Hallucigenia was a lobopod, whose living relatives lie within that large and diverse group the Ecdysozoa, which all have throat teeth and include the wondrous water bear (tardigrade) and the velvet- and penis worms (onychophores and priapulids, respectively) as well as lobsters, flies and woodlice. It may indeed have been close to the last common ancestor of all animals who moult their carapaces.