In The Field

Burgess Shale Centenary: Fossilized brains

I was slightly shocked to see a slide of ‘fossilized brains’ from the Cambrian thrown up on a slide. Brains? From the Cambrian? Turns out I was right to be shocked. “People find it hard to swallow” says Nicholas Strausfield, a neuroanatomist from the University of Arizona. He was trawling through Burgess Shale fossils of Waptia – a small shrimp-like creature from the Cambrian – looking for hints of the evolutionary relationship between insects and crustaceans, when he found 3 samples that seemed to have brain-shapes in them. “I have flattened a lobster brain, and it looks like that,” he says. You can’t tell too much from these fossils, except that the brain was apparently big enough to handle some complex sensory information from the antenae and simple eyes. Still, it’s fascinating. Strausfield (who, as the recipient of a McArthur grant, unofficially counts as a ‘genius’) switched from looking at insects to crustaceans on the principle that you ought to be able to eat what you study. Sadly, he notes, Waptia is so small it wouldn’t even make a good soup.

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones


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