Scientists Prove Skeptics Wrong With Brain Fossil Find

Vindication is sweet for neurobiologist Nicholas Strausfeld and his colleagues.

In 2012, the University of Arizona professor’s team discovered preserved brain tissue in the fossil of the sea-dwelling arthropod Fuxianhuia protensa, a 5-inch animal that lived 520 million years ago and was similar to modern-day shrimp.

But the finding was greeted with skepticism. Paleontologists had long thought that brains would decompose and disintegrate before fossilizing.

Now Strausfeld is proving the skeptics wrong in a new study conducted with Xiaoya Ma, a paleobiologist from the Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at China’s Yunnan University, and Gregory Edgecombe, a paleobiologist from the Natural History Museum in London. The research details the discovery of seven Fuxianhuia specimens found in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province that contain neural tissue. It also describes the circumstances that allowed the prehistoric brains to be preserved.

“I felt that a subset of paleontologists were simply hide-bound: couldn’t countenance the possibility that brains might fossilize,” Strausfeld told The Huffington Post about his 2012 discovery. “I think the three of us who have coauthored these various papers — Greg Edgecombe, Xiaoya Ma and myself — feel vindicated.”

Strausfield said the mudslide preserved the fossilized brains when it sealed the ancient creatures inside. A lack of oxygen helped to suppress the microbial life, or bacteria, which would lead the brains to decompose.

“The kind [of fossil] we look at from the lower Cambrian obviously underwent very rapid burial, probably when still alive,” Strausfeld said.

Pressure from the mud and land above the buried creatures must have kept them dry while leaving intact the brain tissues in a thin film, the Guardian reported. And all that was left was a thin layer of carbon and some pyrite crystals, commonly known as fool’s gold for it’s shiny yellow color. —> Read More