Ancient oceans’ top predator was gentle filter feeder

Fossils suggest distant lobster relative used bristled limbs to net prey, not spike it

GENTLE GIANT  Tamisiocaris borealis, an up to 70-centimeter-long filter feeder from the Cambrian period, swims among other ancient species in an artist’s reconstruction. The giant predator probably used its spiny appendages (left) to sweep food into its mouth, scientists say.

Robert Nicholls/Paleocreations

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Some of the largest early animals may have used spiny limbs to filter their food rather than impale it.

Fossils found in northern Greenland suggest that, like other predators 520 million years ago, Tamisiocaris borealis, a distant lobster relative, had two long, spiny limbs that jutted out from its face. But unlike other predators, T. borealis’ limbs also had bristles: The appendages’ long, equally spaced, slender spines were covered in much finer, denser ones.

This mesh is similar to the hairy fringes found in modern filter-feeding whales, Jakob Vinther of England’s University of Bristol and colleagues say. With its bristled limbs, the up to 70-centimeter-long T. borealis could have swept through the water, netting small crustacean-like creatures and other prey. The animal could then have curled the appendages inward one at a time to suck the food into its mouth, the researchers argue in the March 27 Nature.

The fossils may be the earliest evidence for filter feeding in large, free-swimming animals, the scientists say.


IN SWEEP  T. borealis probably used its spiny appendages to sweep through the water for prey and then bring the food into its mouth, as these animations show. Credit: Martin Stein

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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