Tiny ancient creature carried its babies like “kites”

Apr 12, 2016

Photo credit: D. Briggs, D. Siveter, D. Siveter, M. Sutton, D. Legg

By Mindy Weisberger

As any parent knows, keeping tabs on your developing young in a dangerous world can be a trial. A tiny, resourceful creature that lived 430 million years ago devised a novel method for such baby tracking: It tethered egg pouches to its back with threads and trailed its juveniles as they grew, as if they were tiny kites.

Scientists recently described the arthropod — a type of invertebrate with a segmented body and exoskeleton — and its unusual parenting practice in a new study, with the animal’s kitelike appendages inspiring them to name the specimen after “The Kite Runner,” a popular 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini.

The first part of its scientific name, Aquilonifer spinosus,is derived from the Latin words aquila (eagle or kite) and fer (carry). [Video: Ancient ‘Kite Runner’ Creature Flew Its Young on Strings]

“Like Pompeii on the ocean floor”

Eyeless, flat-bodied A. spinosus measured less than 0.5 inches (1.3 centimeters) long. A shield protected its head, which was topped by two sweeping antennalike structures, and it used its 12 pairs of legs to scuttle across the sea bottom in what is now Herefordshire in the U.K. The region looks very different today — for one, it’s not underwater anymore — but fossils of numerous small creatures like A. spinosus that once inhabited the ocean are preserved in outcrops inside rocky spheres, “like baseballs,” of hardened volcanic ash called concretions, which formed around their remains, said Derek Briggs, a paleontology professor at Yale University and lead author of the study.

“The tendency is to think of this as Pompeii on the ocean floor,” Briggs said.

Typically, each concretion holds a single fossil, which is usually too small to be chipped out of the rock. Scanning methods that typically help paleontologists reconstruct embedded fossils aren’t much use for these specimens, he said, because their mineral composition is too similar to the concretion around them for the scans to distinguish between the two.

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