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image of a lobopodian fosil nicknamed the walking cactus

image of a lobopodian fosil from Nature

Cactus Walking On 20 Legs Found In China

There was a wild period — roughly 520 million years ago — when life, for no obvious reason, burst into a crazy display of weird new fantastic forms — producing creatures in shapes never seen before or since. Consider this animal, the newest fossil discovery from Jianni Liu in China. She calls it “the walking cactus.”

This is not a plant, not a sculpture. It was a live animal, with no eyes, what may or may not be a head, mostly a gaggle of limbs, armor-plated, covered in thorns, attached to a stomach.

What is it? Taxonomically, Jianni Liu thinks it’s a lobopodian, a group of animals described as “worms with legs.” Lobopodians are about the craziest looking critters that ever lived. A whole zoo of them appear in the rocks around Chengjiang, China.

All we know, says Richard Fortey in his classic history Life, is that a long time ago, the first of these strange animals popped into view and for a short while “there was a chain reaction, unstoppable once it started, a bacchanalia of zoological inventiveness, which has never been matched again.”

Every living thing on earth today is what’s left over from that amazing burst of forms. It’s true we now live on land and in the air, not just in the sea. We have grasses and flowers and beetles in more varieties than you can imagine, and yet, in some deep architectural way, the developmental paths were set way back then, 500 million years ago. The Walking Cactus is just another souvenir of that crazy moment.

Very cool. Actual science is so full of such interesting things. The Cambrian explosion of life, about 540-490 million years ago, marked the beginning of complex life on earth. Before Cambrian, the sea floor was covered by microbial mats. By the end of the period, burrowing animals had destroyed the mats through bioturbation, and gradually turned the seabeds into what they are today. Generally it is accepted that there were no land plants at this time, although it is likely that a microbial “scum” comprising fungi, algae, and possibly lichens covered the land.

Complex organisms gradually became more common in the millions of years immediately preceding the Cambrian, but it was not until this period that mineralized (readily fossilized) organisms became common. Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude (as defined in terms of the extinction and origination rate of species) and the diversity of life began to resemble today’s.

Related: 500 Million-year-old Stromatolite FossilFossils of Sea MonsterDinosaur Remains Found with Intact Skin and TissueAncient Whale Uncovered in Egyptian DesertSouth African Fossils Could be New Hominid Species

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