Nick Matzke posted Entry 1363 on August 21, 2005 07:58 PM.
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Note: The paper by Chen et al. is now published online. Embarassingly for the BBC, the fossil is named Vetustovermis, not Vetustodermis. I thought the misspelling would explain why Vetustodermis originally got zero google hits (there are now 160 google hits on Vetustodermis), but it turns out that Vetustovermis currently gets zero google hits, although I am sure this won’t last. Anyhow, I will correct the name, and add a few comments on the paper to the end of this post.

The BBC has a story up about the Cambrian fossil Vetustovermis planus, a critter so obscure that, at the time of this posting, it received zero hits on google. The BBC reports that a study is coming out in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B: Biological Sciences that evidently phylogenetically places Vetustovermis outside of any extant phylum, but perhaps nearer to molluscs within the Lophotrocozoans.

Vetustovermis planus photo.jpgThe question raised by the BBC story and also by Charles Alt at the Philosophy of Biology blog is whether or not this kind of critter deserves a whole new phylum of its own. If you accept the premise that every fossil must be put in some phylum, and if a fossil doesn’t fit within the definition of known phyla then you should invent a new phylum, then the answer is clearly “yes.” However, as I argued in my previous post “Down with phyla!“, Cambrian paleontologists are abandoning this convention, because it artificially elevates objectively moderate character differences into the subjectively “big” “phylum-level differences”. Another way to say this is that inventing new phyla for fossils has the effect of converting the true pattern of evolution, which is a thoroughly fractal branching tree, into a “phylogenetic lawn of phyla” pattern, which is very misleading.

This change in thinking is the subtext underlying the comments of the scientists quoted in the BBC article. David Bottjer provides the pro-phylum quote that the reporter used, but he sounds somewhat noncommittal. Jonathan Todd, on the other hand, appears to have attempted to give the reporter the basic down-with-phyla debate, and whether or not the reporter “got it”, at least some of it made it into the article:

However, Dr Todd is reluctant to create a whole new phylum to accommodate Vetustovermis; that, he thinks, would be premature.

“Some scientists have thought that there were so many distinct phyla in the Cambrian,” he said. “They came to that conclusion because they were not thinking in the phylogenetic sense, they were thinking ‘hey, that is a unique set of features – it must be a distinct phylum’.”

So rather than creating new phyla every time something doesn’t fit an existing one, the really interesting exercise, Dr Todd thinks, is to establish just how Vetustovermis slotted into the greater evolutionary tree.

If, indeed, it did belong to a different phylum, how did that group connect to the molluscs, annelids and arthropods?

“We don’t really know the phylo-genetic relationships between the extant phyla,” he said. “Molecular genetics has only gone so far. But recent phyla have got to connect somehow. These fossils really offer the opportunity to tie together recent phyla.”

For that last paragraph, I will take the liberty of translating what the reporter wrote down into what Jonathan Todd probably thought he was saying:

“We don’t really know the phylogenetic relationships between the extant phyla,” he said. “Molecular genetics has only gone so far. But Recent phyla have got to connect somehow. These fossils really offer the opportunity to tie together Recent phyla.”

Here’s the take home message in my view: these ambiguous Cambrian fossils belong to stem groups that diverged before the last common ancestor of the currently-living (“Recent”) members of a phylum. They thus have some, but not all, of the characters that living members of a phylum have in common. These ambiguous fossils, therefore, are exactly the ones that are going to show us how the character suites of living phyla were gradually acquired in the stem groups. We shouldn’t be shoehorning these fossils into the typological categories of either extant phyla or newly-invented phyla, when the thing we want to study is the fundamentally non-typological process of evolutionary transition.

Additional commentary now that the paper is published: As I indicated, the stuff about “new phylum” was mostly hype. The terms “phylum” or “phyla” do not appear in the paper.

The paper does not contain a cladistic analysis – the clear characters that are available are very limited. The paper, which is only 5 pages long, does contain a cursory exploration of the possible affinities of Vetustovermis. I will quote this below, and intersperse a few comments, and links to the more obscure groups. For me, the take-home message is that the known basal groups and sister groups of the “advanced” phyla (arthropods, chordates, molluscs, echinoderms, etc.) are all pretty much soft-bodied worms and slugs. Not many characters are going to be preserved in worm fossils. It therefore shouldn’t be that surprising that certain wormlike/sluglike Cambrian forms are hard to lump with the modern phyla.


The flattened body and horizontal fins of Vetustovermis planus could have been an adaptation to support the animal as it moved on the soft seafloor, as well as for gliding or swimming near the seafloor. The large surface area of the gills may have provided effective gas exchange for an active life style. The well developed sense organs including a pair of large, stalked eyes and large cephalic tentacles suggest that Vetustovermis planus was attuned to the presence of food resources as well as possible predators.

Vetustovermis planus resembles molluscs by having a flat foot, a polyplacophoran-like flexible elongated body, and serial pairs of gills on each side of the trunk (Brusca & Brusca 2002). The dorsal conic spine-like structures could be a homology of cuticular spicules of polyplacophorans and aplacophorans. This variety of characters is not specific to any crown group of molluscs (Brusca & Brusca 2002). The head has paired tentacles and stalked, basal eyes. Despite a number of conchiferans also having such a well differentiated head, this character probably was absent among more primitive molluscs. Thus, the character of a sluggish head yields no strong implication of a molluscan affinity. The gills in Vetustovermis are also simply bar-shaped and different from molluscan gills, thereby giving only weak support for a molluscan affinity.

Polyplacophorans are chitons, early-diverging molluscs that exhibit some segmentation.

Conchiferans are “all molluscs except chitons and aplacophorans” – i.e. snails, cephalopods, etc. They have a single shell (lost in many groups) and shell-making glands.

Although arthropods and annelids can also have stalked eyes and tentacles, they lack the ventral foot, instead using leg-like appendages for locomotion. Thus, the foot is the best evidence for lack of an arthropod or annelid affinity. One might argue that the axial band-like visceral cavity of Vetustovermis planus is a notochord and that the transverse bars are not gills but myomeres, thereby indicating this animal was a chordate. However, no known chordate has stalked eyes or a ventral foot.

Vetustovermis planus resembles some planktonic nemertines, especially Nectonemertes and Balaenanemertes, in several respects (Gibson 1972; Hyman 1951). These include an anterior tentacle, lateral fins, ventral foot and a series of internal gut caecae comparable to the ‘gill’ of Vetustovermis planus. Nemertines however, lack a protective cuticle or exoskeleton as well as stalked eyes, but have a characteristic eversible proboscis. Presence of spine-like protective structures and stalked eyes and absence of a proboscis do not support a nemertine affinity for this animal.

Whaaaa? The last I heard, Pikaia was considered a basal chordate with stalked eyes:

The ventral flat foot also represents a trait that is shared with many turbellarians (free living flatworms) (Hyman 1951; Ruppert et al. 2004). The combined existence of a head, and elaborated paired tentacles and stalked eyes gives no support for an affinity of this animal to flatworms. Some polychaetes such as the sea mouse (Aphrodite aculeate) also bear a ventral muscular, creeping sole; myzostomids have a circular body with fused parapodia, which also forms a ventral foot like structure. However, the sea mouse is covered with a thick felt-like or hair layer, and myzostomids have numerous extended cirri (Rouse & Fleijel 2001; Ruppert et al. 2004).

Ancestral molluscs are widely accepted to have lacked a mineralized shell. Trace fossils that suggest grazing with a radula (Radulichnus) (Erwin & Davidson 2002; Seilacher 1999, 2003), together with large imprints of possible molluscs lacking a mineralized shell (Kimberella) from the latest Neoproterozoic (Erwin & Davidson 2002; Fedonkin & Waggoner 1997; Seilacher 1999, 2003), imply that macroscopic molluscs have a deeper evolutionary history. Vetustovermis bears a number of morphological features that are found in Kimberella, which has been interpreted to have a non-mineralized but stiff univalve shell. Like Vetustovermis, Kimberella has many structures (crenellations) that may have been gills, has a broad flat foot, showing metamerism, and its shell bears many impressions, which may be the remains of sclerites or spicules.

Vetustovermis shows a similarity with shell-less sea slugs, which are gastropods that evolved from the shelled ancestors (Yonge 1960). The similarity is thus superficial, as a result of convergent evolution.

In summary, some characters as mentioned may indicate a possible molluscan affinity of Vetustovermis. These characters, however, are found separately within different molluscan groups. For instance, an elaborated head and eyes did not occur in primitive molluscs before the level of Conchifera; serial pairs of gills are seen only in the Polyplacophora and Tryblidia; and an oval foot is known in Tryblidia, polyplacophorans and archaeogastropods only (Brusca & Brusca 2002; Ruppert et al. 2004). A molluscan affinity for this animal, therefore, is poorly grounded. These soft-bodied animals with the characters described here could represent an independently evolved animal lying outside of molluscs. Similar animals have also been recorded from Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale. Several Burgess Shale problematic creatures, including Nectocaris (Conway Morris 1976), Amiskwia (Walcott 1911), and Odontogriphus (Conway Morris 1976), are likely candidates for interpretation as Vetustovermis-like soft-bodied animals. Although the single specimen of Nectocaris has been viewed as laterally compacted, we suspect that it is a subdorsally compacted specimen. If this alternative interpretation is correct, the resemblance with Vetustovermis is thus striking by sharing a number of features including a slug-like head that carries a pair of cephalic tentacles and stalked eyes, a trunk that was laterally finned with a triangular anterior portion, and a large number of transverse gills spread over most of the trunk. Amiskwia also shares a number of features with Vetustovermis planus. They include a flat body with a slug-like head and lateral and posterior fins on the trunk. Although the gross morphology of Odontogriphus appears significantly different from Vetustovermis planus, its potential affinity with Vetustovermis is suggested by its dorso-ventrally flattened body and series of transverse lines on the trunk (comparable to the gills of Vetustovermis).

Vetustovermis planus resembles the Carboniferous problematic Tullimonstrum gregarium in several important respects (Foester 1979). These include a dorso-ventrally flat trunk, lateral fins, a distinct visceral mass, stalked eyes, and a series of transverse segments. Foester has tentatively interpreted Tullimonstrum gregarium as a prosobranch gastropod (Conway Morris 1976).

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Comment #43701

Posted by Josh Narins on August 18, 2005 9:25 AM (e)

Go Cladistics Go!

Comment #43705

Posted by Henry J on August 18, 2005 9:36 AM (e)

Could this light-bulb-headed creature be closely related to a common ancestor of more than one still living phylum?


Comment #43706

Posted by Cam on August 18, 2005 10:01 AM (e)

Could this be a larger relative of Amiskwia?

Comment #43744

Posted by Nick (Matzke) on August 18, 2005 1:15 PM (e)

It does have a bit of an anomalocarid look to it, which (this is completely nontechnical speculation on my part) would make it share some characteristics with an arthropod stem group as well. So, maybe it branched near the divergence of arthropods and annelids+molluscs, which would really put the whammy on the whole phylum thing.

Comment #44047

Posted by Henry J on August 19, 2005 11:57 PM (e)

Re “which would really put the whammy on the whole phylum thing.”

Kind of like what the classes of vertebrates did to the class thing? (I.e., fish clade has to include all the terrestrial vertebrates, reptile clade has to include birds. Now as I understand it*, living ampibians, birds, and mammals are each their own clade, so those are okay cladistically speaking.) (*From the tree of life website to which TalkOrigins links.)


Comment #44232

Posted by Bayesian Bouffant, FCD on August 21, 2005 1:53 PM (e)

Yeah, but it’s still a Vetustodermis”

nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

Comment #44244

Posted by the pro from dover on August 21, 2005 5:22 PM (e)

perhaps this isnt the correct place to ask this question, but I’ve had difficulty with these high-in-the-classification-system words and perhaps someone knows the exact (evolutionary) definitions and how they compare to each other: “reptile”, “sauropsid” and “diapsid”. I have seen several geneological displays/articles/cladograms that seem to use these terms interchangeably. Help for an ignoramus is always appreciated.

Comment #44281

Posted by Henry J on August 21, 2005 10:03 PM (e)

Re “reptile”, “sauropsid” and “diapsid”

According to Tree of Life: Amniotes the Diapsida clade is the branch of Reptilia clade that contains lizards, crocodiles, birds, and some extinct relatives.

The Tree of Life webpage search didn’t get a hit on “sauropsid”, though the Sauria clade is a branch of Diapsida that apparently includes all its still living members.

I don’t know if the usage on that webpage is universal or not, though.

Oh, and incidentally, one of the contributors here pointed out that turtles are Diapsid not Anapsid (as it tentatively shows on the referenced page).


Comment #44286

Posted by Henry J on August 21, 2005 10:40 PM (e)

That list of affinities of Vetustovermis with various types of mullusks reminds me of the superficial resemblance of various features of the duckbill platypus to those of various vertebrate classes. :)


Comment #44299

Posted by Nick (Matzke) on August 22, 2005 2:04 AM (e)

In the above post I assumed without thinking that the tentacles on Pikaia‘s head bore eyes, but there appears to be doubt about this. Here is one non-authoritative website with an opinion:

Among these animals slipped the tiny ribbon Pikaia. Its flattened body, tapered at each end, probed among grains of coarse sediments. Its seemingly two-lobed head had a pair of slender tentacles and may have borne eyes.

Here’s the link, I don’t know if this is a tourist brochure or what:

On the other hand:

The anterior end of the body bears a small pair of anterior protrusions of uncertain function; their depiction(53) as eyestalks, while intended to be humerous, runs the risk of being taken at face value by many readers.

In summary, the cephalochordate affinity of Pikaia is at best only weakly indicated by the characters visible in fossils discovered so far. Therefore, some have speculated that Pikaia represents an even more basal chordate(45) (possibly derived from vendozoans, which are enigmatic fossils from the late Precambrian)(54) or possibly a protostome-like creature.(55)


45. Simonetta AM, Pucci A, Dzik J. Hypotheses on the origin and early evolution of chordates in the light of recent zoological and palaeontological evidence. Ital J Zool 1999;6699-119.

53. Riddell C. [Cover illustration for] Wonderful Life. London: Penguin Books. 1991.

54. Dzik J. Yunnanozoon and the ancestry of chordates. Acta Paleontol
Polon 1995;40:341-360.

55. Butterfield NJ. Organic preservation of non-mineralizing organisms and the taphonomy of the Burgess Shale. Paleobiology 1990;16:272-286.

Source: Nicholas D. Holland and Junyuan Chen (2001). “Origin and early evolution of the vertebrates: New insights from advances in molecular biology, anatomy, and palaeontology.” BioEssays, 23(2), 142-151.

So perhaps the cover of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life subliminably implanted the Pikaia eyestalk idea in my head long ago.
(On the other other hand, on phylogenetic grounds Pikaia probably had some kind of light-sensing organs, like Amphioxis. But it could have had eyes and tentacles separately, of course.)

Comment #44312

Posted by Bayesian Bouffant, FCD on August 22, 2005 8:51 AM (e)

Embarassingly for the BBC, the fossil is named Vetustovermis, not Vetustodermis.

OK, so it’s not still a Vetustodermis. You got me on that one.

Comment #44330

Posted by Jaime Headden on August 22, 2005 2:20 PM (e)

I would have thought the apparent independant nature of a phylum even without a definition (as alluded in the statement “referred to a new phylum”, would have been the first reason NOT to invent phyla, not the nature of “grassy phyla” on some chart. Indeed, phyla, like other Linnaean ranks, are completely without identity without the taxa they serve to separate from other like-ranked names. How this serves better than using taxa without ranks, I have yet to be told. Supposedly, one answer would be adherence to convention, in which case we can stick with Aristotelian Spheres and Flat Earth models while we’re at it, just to justify using Linnaean hierarchical structures. Definitions of species are used to “save a rank,” but have obliterated the use of the species as the basic rank, as have subspecies, variants, and so forth. At this point, it’s just a “group” of low-level, high-diversity ranks. Using the pattern of name recognition with dependant definitions and relationships with diagnoses would not require ranks, and this goes all the way to phyla and kingdom above that. And would, in fact, not to offend Woese or agree with Mayr, do away with Domains, and just use the names.

Comment #44338

Posted by Bayesian Bouffant, FCD on August 22, 2005 4:14 PM (e)

“grassy phylum”

That sounds conspiratorial, like the grassy knoll.

Comment #44346

Posted by wolfwalker on August 22, 2005 5:38 PM (e)

Also re: ‘reptile’, ‘sauropsid’ and ‘diapsid’

As best I can tell, Sauropsida is a clade in dispute. In Major Features of Vertebrate Evolution from The Palaeontological Society, Sauropsida is the reptilian half of the Amniota. That is, if Synapsida is mammals and anything closer to a mammal than to a reptile; then Sauropsida is reptiles and anything closer to a reptile than to a mammal. It was properly defined as Reptilia + an obscure fossil group called Mesosauridae. The Tree of Life page that Henry J linked to re-classifies Mesosauridae within Anapsida, thus removing the need for Sauropsida.

The Tree of Life page plays with Diapsida a bit too, juggling two minor clades to place them outside Diapsida where Major Features of Vertebrate Evolution places them within Diapsida. However, both those groups are extinct, so you’re pretty safe if you just think of Diapsida as “lizards + crocodilians + birds + all their extinct relatives.” Though as a dinosaur nut, I have to point out that “all their extinct relatives” includes the Dinosauria. :-) Also the marine reptiles and the pterosaurs.

Comment #44372

Posted by the pro from dover on August 22, 2005 7:40 PM (e)

this is just super thanks for the help. There is little doubt that these terms have been used very broadly and confusingly. Lest no one forget the obscure little mesosaurus: remember that it was found in early permian rocks both on the eastern coast of So. America and the western coast of Africa giving a strong push to the reality of continental drift long before A. Wegener.

Comment #45366

Posted by Robin Datta on August 28, 2005 9:52 PM (e)

At the base of the Tree of LIfe, every aborted twig was a Phylum

Comment #45384

Posted by jaimito on August 29, 2005 6:19 AM (e)

The lamp bulb indicates an affinity to Thomas Alva Edison’s invention. A clear case of Creationism. The fact that the lamp is situated higher than the eyes, providing better illumination, is a further demonstration of Intelligent design. Regarding its classification, being a “fish” without scales, it belongs to the non-kosher sea foods.

Comment #45387

Posted by Grey Wolf on August 29, 2005 7:53 AM (e)

Ummmm… pro from dover, I have this rather pressing concern… do you realise that you’re using the same handle as a comic cheetah from the Suburban Jungle comic? And, if you do realise it, do you speak pseudo object Oriented language in your every day life? ;D

Grey Wolf

Comment #46405

Posted by Matthew Paul Thomas on September 3, 2005 5:33 PM (e)

The BBC took a bit longer than they usually do, but they just let me know that they’ve fixed the spelling.