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Ancient comb jellies maybe not so soft: Chinese fossils hint at rigid framework for filmy sea creatures.

Comb jellies, just globes of shimmering film in today's oceans, may have had rigid skeletons and hard plates millions of years ago.

Fossils about 520 million years old from six species of comb jellies show signs of hard parts, such as rigid spokes and hard plates, says Qiang Ou of China University of Geosciences in Beijing. Ou and colleagues report the finding July 10 in Science Advances. Until now, biologists have thought of comb jellies, or ctenophores, as soft bodied, so the fossils reveal an "unexpected lost history," Ou says.

"Exciting," says Stefan Bengtson, a paleontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. The notion of long-ago rigid parts "may help explain why these animals, now represented by forms with flimsy and rapidly degradable bodies, have a fossil record that is comparatively rich in the Ediacaran-Cambrian [periods] but quite depauperate after that."

The skeletons, from the Chengjiang site in China, weren't necessarily bonelike and rich in minerals, says paper coauthor Shuhai Xiao, a geobiologist at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. He suspects the hard parts were more like the exoskeletons of today's insects, made of organic molecules.

Part of the evidence for a hardened framework comes from the shapes of the body parts preserved in the fossils. In the 37 specimens, the researchers don't find the jellies' flaps twisted or folded as would be expected from mere filmy structures. Instead, these parts lie flat, as they would if supported by rigid frames or if they were hard plates themselves.

What's known about genes of modern comb jellies (SN: 5/13/13, p. 20) makes the idea of a skeleton sound plausible, says Leonid Moroz, an evolutionary neuroscientist and geneticist at the University of Florida in St. Augustine. The jellies have genes for the calcium carbonate needed to make sensory structures called statoliths, as well as other genes for collagen. Using such genes to create rigid supports "is not a big stretch," he says.

The extinct oddball comb jellies with skeletons fit with the idea that early life-forms may have been unusually diverse, Moroz says. In this interpretation of the story of life, the long-ago period when rigid comb jellies lived was a time of exploding novelty in shapes and lifestyles that has dwindled since. The number of species may have grown but the extent of bizarre differences within groups of organisms has shrunk.

Caption: A fossil of a newly described species of comb jelly, Gemmactena actinala, hints that some rigid spine kept a flap (right side of left image) from twisting and gave the complicated shape (right image) some support.

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Title Annotation:LIFE & EVOLUTION
Author:Milius, Susan
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 8, 2015
Words:443
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