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Ancient oddball invertebrate finds its place on the tree of life

illustration of a hyolith

Tentacles protruding from this hyolith’s shell (illustrated) are part of a feeding organ called a lophophore, which is also found in modern horseshoe worms.

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Hyoliths are evolutionary misfits no more.

This class of ancient marine invertebrates has now been firmly pegged as lophophorates, a group whose living members include horseshoe worms and lamp shells, concludes an analysis of more than 1,500 fossils, including preserved soft tissue.  

The soft-bodied creatures, encased in conical shells, concealed U-shaped guts and rings of tentacles called lophophores that surrounded their mouths. Fossil analysis suggests that hyoliths used those tentacles and spines, called helens, to trawl the seafloor more than 500 million years ago, researchers report online January 11 in Nature.

For years, paleontologists have argued over where on the tree of life these bottom-feeders belonged. Some scientists thought hyoliths were closely related to mollusks, while others thought the odd-looking creatures deserved a branch all their own. This new insight into hyolith anatomy “settles a long-standing paleontological debate,” the researchers write.

fossil of hyolith

Earth,, Climate

Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf nears breaking point

By Thomas Sumner 3:32pm, January 9, 2017
A fast-growing crack in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf could soon break off a 5,000-square-kilometer hunk of ice into the ocean.
Biophysics

Baby starfish whip up whirlpools to snag a meal

By Emily Conover 12:00pm, December 23, 2016
Starfish larvae use hairlike cilia to stir up water whorls and suck prey in close.
Clinical Trials,, Health

Ebola vaccine proves effective, final trial results show

By Meghan Rosen 6:30pm, December 22, 2016
The Ebola vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV proved effective at stopping the spread of the virus in a clinical trial in West Africa.
Animals,, Genetics,, Evolution

Genome clues help explain the strange life of seahorses

By Cassie Martin 4:30pm, December 14, 2016
Researchers have decoded the genetic instruction manual of a seahorse (Hippocampus comes) and found clues to its nearly 104-million-year evolutionary history.
Planetary Science,, Chemistry

First signs of boron on Mars hint at past groundwater, habitability

By Thomas Sumner 6:34pm, December 13, 2016
The Curiosity rover has found the first signs of boron on Mars, which could hint at past habitable groundwater.
Cells,, Health,, Microbiology

Cell biologists learn how Zika kills brain cells, devise schemes to stop it

By Tina Hesman Saey 4:17pm, December 13, 2016
Cell biologists are learning more about how the Zika virus disrupts brain cells to cause microcephaly. Meanwhile, several strategies to combat the virus show preliminary promise.
Robotics

Caterpillar robot uses squishy, 3-D printed legs to inch and crawl

By Meghan Rosen 2:23pm, December 13, 2016
Squishy, 3-D printed legs help a caterpillar robot switch between inching and crawling, and offer sensory info about the world.
Health

Microcephaly cases surge in Colombia following rise in Zika infections

By Meghan Rosen 5:18pm, December 9, 2016
More than 400 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Colombia this year, months after Zika virus infections peaked in the country.
Materials,, Technology

Graphene Silly Putty detects pitter-patter of spider footsteps

By Emily Conover 2:00pm, December 8, 2016
Sensor made of graphene and Silly Putty can detect pulse, breathing — and spider feet.
Climate,, Oceans

Solar panels are poised to be truly green

By Thomas Sumner 11:00am, December 6, 2016
Solar panels are about to break even on their energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions.
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