Eyes from the deep past

by Matthew Cobb

[I just posted this over at z-letter.com - it's reposted here with Jerry's permission]

The most dramatic early eyes known up to now have been, not surprisingly, the calcite eyes of trilobites. These mineral lenses, formed into a compound eye, lend themselves to fossilisation, plus there are millions of fossilised trilobites lying around in rocks. In the latest issue of Nature, there is a dramatic description of an incredibly tiny fossil from Australia that reveals that at least one organism from the early Cambrian – 515 MY ago – had eyes that were incredibly complex and modern.

The work was carried out by a group from Australia (with help from the Natural History Museum in London), led by Michael Lee and John Paterson. They studied rocks from the Emu Shale in Kangaroo Island in South Australia. This is a famous layer of shale which contains some exceptionally preserved organisms, and is a useful comparison with the Burgess Shale in Canada and Chenjiang in China.

The researchers found a number of isolated fossilised eyes that had apparently come from some kind of arthropod. They are about 7 mm long, are curved, and are composed of up to 3,000 individual lenses or ‘ommatidia’. They are not made of calcite, and they are not from a trilobite. They are incredibly beautiful. The eye of the robber fly is included for comparison. These were NOT from a fly! They are from a marine organism!

a–d, Three fossils of compound eyes from a large arthropod from the Emu Bay Shale, South Australia (a–c), shown in similar hypothesized orientation to the compound eye of a living predatory arthropod, the robberfly Laphria rufifemorata (d; anterior view of head). All fossil eyes have large central ommatidial lenses forming a light-sensitive bright zone, b, and a sclerotized pedestal, p. Because the fossil eyes are largely symmetrical about the horizontal axis, it is not possible to determine dorsal and ventral surfaces, and thus whether the eyes are left or right. All fossils are oriented as if they are left eyes (medial is to the left of the figure). In b there is a radial tear (white line) with the top portion of the eye displaced downwards to overlie the main part; extensive wrinkling causes some central lenses (arrow) to be preserved almost perpendicular to the bedding plane.

The fossilised eyes were all about the same size, suggesting they had all come from adults. Sadly, there are no clear animal remains associated with them. They presumably became separated from the body either because the animals were predated in some odd way (predators spitting out the eyes?) or because they are in fact the cast of the organism as it grew in size. They say:

“One possibility is that the fossils reported here are of previously shed corneas. The corneal surfaces of living arthropods detach during ecdysis and remain loosely connected to the rest of the exuvia; moulted corneas might be more prone to decay and thus more susceptible to early diagenetic mineralization (in this case phosphatization) than complete eyes attached to intact organisms.”

The fine detail of the fossils made it possible to calculate the precise distance between the ommatidia. Note that the lenses are hexagonal, just as in modern arthropods:

Cambrian arthropod eye. a, Entire specimen showing the positions of close-ups in c and f. b, Relief-map three-dimensional reconstruction of a. c, Close-up of large ommatidial lenses in the bright zone, with white line and numbers referring to the cross-section shown in e. d, Relief-map three-dimensional reconstruction of c. e, Cross-section through four large lenses indicated by the white line in c; numbers refer to individual lenses represented by concavities. f, Close-up of small marginal lenses, with white line and numbers referring to the cross-section shown in h. g, Relief-map three-dimensional reconstruction of f. h, Cross-section through four small lenses indicated by the white line in f; numbers refer to individual lenses represented by concavities.

The authors then go on to look at the optics of these eyes, in terms of the density of the ommaditidia. And report that this kind of complexity and density has previously been found only in the the Ordovician, around 40 MY later.

So – what animal do they belong to? They are too small to be from everyone’s favourite Cambrian predator, Anomalocaris. The authors reckon that they could be from a bivalve arthropod found in the Emu Bay shale called Tuzoia:

The large, unnamed Tuzoia species from the Emu Bay Shale has stalked compound eyes that are ovoid to round and 6–9 mm in diameter: very similar to the fossil eyes described here. However, no detailed structure of the visual surface is preserved in the articulated eyes of Emu Bay Shale or Burgess Shale Tuzoia specimens.

Here’s a picture of Tuzoia:

Reconstruction of Tuzoia.

The authors conclude:

The specimens described here represent the first microanatomical evidence confirming the view that highly developed vision in the Early Cambrian was not restricted to trilobites. Furthermore, in possessing more and larger lenses, plus a distinct bright zone, they are substantially more complex than contemporaneous trilobite eyes, which are often assumed to be among the most powerful visual organs of their time. The new fossils reveal that some of the earliest arthropods had already acquired visual systems similar to those of living forms, underscoring the speed and magnitude of the evolutionary innovation that occurred during the Cambrian explosion.

19 Comments

  1. MadScientist
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, there is some hope yet taht someone will find a fossil with a clear cast of the eyes as well as a recognizable fragment of the rest of the animal.

  2. saintstephen
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Biologists have all the fun. Great post.

  3. Diane G.
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    What a neat story, and I love that Tuzoia reconstruction! When I read “bivalve arthropod” I pictured something like today’s ostracodes–not something like that!

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Very cute critter. But now I can’t stop thinking of the Rolling Stones.
      Off to find some music…

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 1, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

        :D

        But it needs a tongue…

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted June 30, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      that’s funny–first thing I thought was that it looked like a googly-eyed ostracod!
      cf., e.g.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 1, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

        Well, that pic is certainly a lot closer-looking to Tuzoia than any ostracods I’ve ever seen. Guess I haven’t met them all. :D

        (The ones that spring to my mind have transparent to whitish valves and lots of wiggling appendages extending from them…

        …Wow, that was worth doing a Google image search on, though–fantastic variety!)

  4. Thanny
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    “…underscoring the speed and magnitude of the evolutionary innovation that occurred during the Cambrian explosion.”

    Or, put more properly, supporting the view that there was no explosion at all, just a deep ancestry from which we have no fossils.

  5. Marella
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    That is a truly bizarre looking animal.

  6. Posted June 30, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Those creatures have MORE eyes than today, THAT’S ANTI EVOLUTION!

    Sorry, I was having a flash back to a Harun Yahya lecture :)

  7. Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    That reconstruction is faintly erotic. I can picture a basket of those on the table in the sensual ‘finger food’ feasting scene from the 1963 film Tom Jones ~ the one with Albert Finney & Joyce Redman oyster slurping…

    The modern day cousin of Tuzoia is almost as good looking, but eyeless

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 1, 2011 at 1:43 am | Permalink

      “Dalilips” would be such a great genus name!

  8. Posted June 30, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Does anyone know whether the total number of ommatidia in these eyes — or in any compound eyes — is a Fibonacci number? Compound eyes seem like the perfect place for the Fibonacci sequence to affirm itself.

    Just a little eye-curious.

  9. Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    PZ already got a message from a creationist that this complex form in the Cambrian falsifies Darwinism.

    Rabbits can’t be far behind!

    • nichole
      Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I totally expected them to do this… I also thought of rabbits… I think he said Pre-Cambrian, but still. Oi vey.

  10. Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Is it too early for mantis shrimp eyes? Mantis shrimps look as if they still have a Cambrian propulsion system.

  11. Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Now this is the the cool stuff. All the froggy, penis rubbing, cambrian eyeball fossil stuff. Thank you Jerry

  12. Michael Fisher
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Sea urchins use their entire body as an eye

  13. Shelly Pollock
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Help – I was watching a program last night 8-17-11 on the Science Channel. The man mentioned that in the Burgess Shale there is a fossil that had the beginning of eyes…before the trilobites. The name of this fossil started something like .. pil—ia…something like this…it had cilia and it looked shrimp-like i think…i have tried to find the name and more information on this critter but have come up with zero…does anyone know what I’m talking about? Hope I can find some help…Shelly


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] of the eye This is an interesting article about a recent discovery and what is says about the evolution of eyesight (by Matthew [...]

  2. [...] some recent fossil discoveries, found in a 515 million year old deposit in South Australia. Matthew Cobb has already summarized the paper, so I’ll be brief on the details, but it’s very cool. What was found was a collection [...]

  3. [...] Eyes from the deep past (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) [...]

  4. [...] Panda’s Thumb blog, written up by P Z Myers. He refers us to a more detailed description at Why Evolution is True. It’s all about a discovery of a number of preserved complex eyes, dating back 515 million [...]

  5. [...] A summary of this paper, including photographs of the actual fossils, has already been posted by Matthew Cobb, but I still wanted to point out some really interesting aspects. The Early Cambrian is well-known [...]

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