Scientists solved a 500-million-year-old mystery about strange Cambrian structures found in China

Over 500 million years ago, sea-dwelling invertebrate pioneered a new evolutionary experiment: skeletons. But while those durable, tubelike structures stood the test of time as fossils, the animals’ soft bodies decayed and vanished, erasing all evidence of what these ancient animals may have looked like. Now, a recent re-examination of those ancient skeletal tubes has finally unveiled the identity of one of these mysterious organisms.

These early calcium-reinforced “skeleton” tubes date to a period known as the Cambrian explosion (541 million to 510 million years ago) and seem to have been an effective survival strategy, as they cropped up in multiple groups across a relatively short span of geological time (about 50 million years). During this period, everything from the segmented ancestors of earthworms to the bizarre ancient relatives of tardigrades created tubelike protective structures.

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