Nidelric pugio fossil dates back half a billion years and teaches us about the diversity of life in Earth’s ancient seas. In life the animal was a ‘balloon’ shape, covered in spines but the squashed fossil resembles a bird’s nest. The fossil has been named in honour of Professor Richard Aldridge from the University of Leicester.
This rare 520 million year old fossil has been discovered in China by an international research team.
The research team behind the discovery was led by Professor Xianguang Hou from the Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at Yunnan University in China with collaboration from the Universities of Leicester and Oxford.
The fossil, from Chengjiang in southern China, is of a probably ‘chancelloriid’, a group of bizarre, balloon-shaped animals with an outer skeleton of defensive spines. The animal was flattened during the fossilisation process so that it looks like a squashed bird’s nest.
Funded by the National Science Foundation in China and the Royal Society in the UK, the research team named the species Nidelric pugio as a way to honour the late Professor Richard Aldridge, and internationally renowned palaeontologist and keen ornithologist formerly from the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology and a scientist who was a world leader in Chengjiang fossil research.
The name of the fossil has derived from the Latin Nidus, meaning ‘bird’s nest’ or ‘fancied resemblance to’ and alderic, derived from the Old English personal name ‘Aedelic’ – ‘adel’ meaning ‘nobel’ and ‘ric’ meaning ‘a ruler’ – which is a source for the name Aldridge.
Dr. Tom Harvey from the University of Leicester, a co-author of the paper, said: “There is only one fossil of this enigmatic animal after 30 years of collecting by our Chinese colleagues at Chengjiang. It is exceptionally rare, but it shows us just how strange and varied the shapes of early animals could be.
“We are glad the fossil can honour the name of Professor Richard Aldridge, who was a leader in this field and whose research was vital in better understanding the rich tapestry of fossils found at Chengjiang.”
In southern China, rocks 520 million years old in Chengjiang County, Yunna Province generate a diverse array of fossils preserved with traces of their soft anatomy, including their legs, eyes, guts and even brains.
Amongst the array of fossils are many animals that can be related to modern relatives, including distant relatives of anthropods such as crabs and lobsters, a wide variety of worms.
There are also several enigmatic fossils that don’t appear to fit with anything living today, and amongst these are the chancelloriids.
The fossils enable an unprecedented view of life in Earth’s ancient seas.
Tom Hearing, a PhD student from the Department of Geology who is working on the skeletons of Cambrian fossils, added: “We usually only get the broken-up remains of ancient animal skeletons. With this specimen we can see how all the different parts of the skeleton stuck together. It tells us much about how early animals functioned, how they might have interacted with other animals, and how they might have protected themselves from predators.”
Contributing Source: University of Leicester
Header Image Source: Prof Derek J Siveter of Oxford University
Flinders University maritime archaeologist Jonathan Benjamin was part of the team that excavated and recorded the site in October under the leadership of Dr Ehud Galili, a world-renowned expert in submerged prehistory and a senior maritime archaeologist at the Israel Antiques Authority and the University of Haifa.
Submerged under five metres of water due to prehistoric sea-level rise, the excavated structure was an important water well that supplied fresh water to the ancient civilisation dated to the pre-pottery Neolithic period that lived on the Kfar Samir site, near Haifa, Israel.
“Water wells are valuable to Neolithic archaeology because once they stopped serving their intended purpose, people used them as big rubbish bins,” Dr Benjamin, a leading expert in prehistoric underwater archaeology, says.
“This is superb for archaeologists because it means we can look through the refuse of prehistoric societies – including animal bones, plant fibres and tools – to see how these ancient civilisations lived, how they hunted and what they ate,” he says.
“At the Kfar Samir site, the water well was probably abandoned when sea levels started to rise and the freshwater became salty so people threw food scraps and animal bones down the well instead.”
After shifting several tonnes of mobile sand covering the well, the team took core samples that are currently being analysed for pollen and sediments. It is hoped the results will shed light on the early Mediterranean diet and trade of the prehistoric village.
“As they were a pre-metal society we expect to find stone tools; perhaps weapons made of flint, and needles made of bone,” Dr Benjamin says.
“We’re also hoping to find organic material such as plant fibers, seeds and evidence of domestic crops such as olive stones that we can date.
“Previous excavations suggest this is likely the world’s oldest olive oil production centre and while it’s too early to tell what we’ve sampled from this small excavation, the preliminary results are promising.”
Using cutting-edge photogrammetry techniques to create a kind of “3D mosaic”, Dr Benjamin is also in the process of generating a 3D model of the well along with fellow collaborator and world-leading expert John McCarthy of Wessex Archaeology (UK).
“We had to take photos in a special way, swimming around the well in a controlled and deliberate manner in order to get full coverage for a high-resolution data set.
“Photogrammetry is not just about creating a pretty picture – for maritime archaeologists it’s a tool that we can use to study the site and make archaeological interpretations. We can spend a few minutes under water, but hours on land analysing the material in very fine detail.
“The technique is not new in theory, but only very recently has the technology caught up to allow us to use it underwater, which we have with exceptional results. This is a wonderful tool for underwater archaeological site recording.”
While the scale of the Neolithic village and its occupants remain a mystery, Dr Benjamin hopes to continue working with Haifa University to unlock more pieces of the puzzle.
“We hope Flinders’ Archaeology Department and University of Haifa will work together in the future to unlock the full history of the site – our relationship is great, the research is world-class and the facilities at the University of Haifa are well equipped for this endeavour.”
The excavation, which was founded by The Honor Frost Foundation, was a joint collaboration effort of Dr Benjamin and Dr Galili and Dr Deborah Cvikel from the University of Haifa.
As part of the two-week expedition, Dr Benjamin and Dr Galili also led field excursions to identify prehistoric sea-level markers during project MEDFLOOD, which is funded by the International Union for Quaternary Science.
“Israel is a great place to look at sea-level change because there are markers from 125,000 years ago on land, when sea levels were higher, but also because sea levels are constantly changing over time there are areas offshore with prehistoric coastal villages buried up to 12 metres deep, and possibly more, older material even deeper offshore.
“For history and archaeology, the Levantine coast is absolutely world-class and it’s contribution to world prehistory simply cannot be ignored.”
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