Anomalocaris is an extinct marine arthropod from the Cambrian period. It has an unusual morphology that includes interleaving lobes along the side of its body, stalked compound eyes , a circular plate-rimmed mouth and a pair of distinctive grasping forelimb.
Anomalocaris was first discovered in the famous Burgess Shale of Canada. Various fossils were originally thought to be those ofdifferent creatures but further examination revealed that the separate parts actually belonged to one large creature – Anomalocaris. It soon became clear that Anomalocaris was probably a highly maneuverable arthropod with excellent vision and an ability to attack and hold prey.
Anomalocaris had a segmented body and was able to propel itself through the water by undulating a series of flexible overlapping lobes that ran down each side of its body. It is believed that it used its barbed fore-limbs to grab smaller arthropods and then flex and crack them apart before enfolding them down towards the circular mouth with its serrated plates. Although the mouth parts were probably not strong enough to bite through hardened shell they would have been able to slice at exposed flesh.
Anomalocaris is believed to be one of the planet's earliest apex predators and for the time period it was a true giant, reaching lengths of up to one metre. There is still debate about whether the protective shell structures of many Cambrian organisms evolved as a response to predation or had other causal factors. What is clear though, is that hardened body parts and predators both appeared at around the same time during the Cambrian period.
It is thought that predation plays a crucial role in evolution, acting as an accelerant on biodiversity. Experiments have indicated that without predation, mono-cultures tend to arise and occupy environmental niches. Once a mono-culture become securely entrenched, the mechanics of evolution appear to slow down, effectively taking on a holding pattern until another disruptive influence comes along. When disruption inevitably occurs the processes of biodiversity kick off again.
Recent discoveries show that anomalocarids had remarkable compound eyes which would have given them excellent 360 degree vision. It’s noteworthy that such complex eyes evolved so early in lifeforms of the planet.
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