July 2, 2013 - A new fossilized, cigar-shaped creature that lived about 520 million years ago has been unearthed in Morocco.
When it comes to species extinction, it's not all doom and gloom.
The new-found species, Helicocystis moroccoensis, has "characteristics that place it as the most primitive echinoderm that has fivefold symmetry," said study co-author Andrew Smith, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, referring to the group of animals that includes starfish and sea urchins. Modern echinoderms typically have five-point symmetry, such as the five arms of the starfish or the sand dollar's distinctive pattern.
The primitive sea creature, described today (June 25) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could even change its body shape from slender to stumpy. Researchers say it is a transitional animal that could help explain how early echinoderms evolved their unique body plans, Smith said. (Photos of New-found Species & Other Cambrian Creatures)
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In 2012, Smith and his colleagues were excavating in sediments dating to about 520 million years ago in the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco, when they uncovered several specimens of the strange fossil.
The creature lived on the ancient supercontinent called Gondwana during the Cambrian Explosion, a period when all creatures inhabited the seas and life on the planet diversified dramatically.
One of the oldest known echinoderms, Helicoplacus — first unearthed in the White Mountains in California — had a spiral but asymmetrical body plan.