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Look Into the Creepy-Cute Eyes of This Reconstructed, 500-Million-Year-Old Creature

The depictions of Agnostus pisiformis are part of comprehensive review of the Cambrian-era arthropod

Agnostus pisiformes (Esben Horn)
smithsonian.com

About half a billion years ago, Scandinavia was covered by Agnostus pisiformis, an ocean-going arthropod about one centimeter across that looks like a very complicated little clam. Though fossils of the creature are common, sometimes it’s hard to visualize such tiny critter. That’s why geology professor Mats E. Eriksson of Lund University in Sweden commissioned sculptures of Agnostus to go along with a research paper in Earth-Science Reviews, which collates just about everything we know about the species. As it turns out, the creature is also, kind of, cute?

Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience reports that Eriksson was able to commission the model because Agnostus is often well preserved in shale and limestone. Not only does its hard outer shell survive, but occasionally its soft tissue has also been fossilized, giving researchers lots of material to work with. “The incredible degree of preservational detail means that we can grasp the entire anatomy of the animal, which, in turn, reveals a lot about its ecology and mode of life,” Eriksson says in a press release.

For instance, it’s known from the fossil record that the animal starts out as a larva. Over several life stages it grows and sheds its hard exoskeleton. It’s also believed that it would grab little pieces of organic material out of the ocean. For paleontologists, however, the species' most important trait is its mere existence. Pappas reports that Agnostus is a great index fossil. If researchers find a layer filled with Agnostus, they can accurately date that rock, which gives them a reference for other fossils they may find.  

Pappas reports that Erikkson hired 10 Tons studio in Denmark to create the sculptures. First, the little creature was hand-sculpted in clay. Then wax molds were poured before the artists produced the final models made of translucent silicon, each the size of a dinner plate. The sculptors made several versions, including what Agnostus would have looked like swimming, and a rolled up model demonstrating how its clam-like exoskeleton would have protected the creature. There’s also one that mimics what the arthropod looks like under a scanning electron microscope.

While the creature is a clammy, bug-like thing with tentacles, its appearance has been inspiring a number of reactions. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, but to me it is beautiful for a number of reasons,” Erikkson tells George Dvorsky at Gizmodo. “I love its anatomy, but I guess it becomes even more beautiful in my eyes because of its long and convoluted research history, and its applicability. Finally, being known from exceptionally [well] preserved material we have detailed insights into its anatomy... What is there not to love?”

Erikkson tells Pappas he hopes the sculpture will help draw more attention to the Cambrian explosion, the time period when life evolved from simple bacteria to much more complex ocean-dwelling creatures. Getting the public excited and inspired to learn more about ancient animals is nothing new. Dinosaurs were first popularized by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins who displayed sculptures of the creatures at London's Crystal Palace in 1851, part of a tradition of “Paleoart” that has been evolving over the course of 200 years.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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