Science: 462 million-year-old fossilized eyes and brains uncovered in ‘secret’ Welsh fossil site

An "extraordinary" secret fossil spot in Wales contains the preserved eyes and brains of 462 million-year-old creatures hidden amidst a hoard of unknown species, a new study finds.

Last year, weird "bramble snout" fossils were documented at the site called "Castle Bank," but new research published May 1 in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution describes the whole fossil deposit.

Hosting a myriad of soft-bodied marine creatures and their organs, which are scarcely preserved in the fossil record, the site resembles the world-renowned Cambrian deposits of Burgess Shale in Canada and Qingjiang biota in China. The rocks of Castle Bank, however, are 50 million years younger and give researchers a unique window into how soft-bodied life diversified in the Ordovician Period (485.4 million to 443.8 million years ago), according to a statement released by Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales.

Researchers believe they’ve recovered more than 170 species from the site, most of which are new to science. These include what appear to be late examples of Cambrian groups, including the weirdest wonders of evolution, the nozzle-nosed opabiniids, and early examples of animals that evolved later, including barnacles, shrimp and an unidentified six-legged insect-like creature. The rocks are also home to the fossilized digestive systems of trilobites and the eyes and brain of an unidentified arthropod, as well as preserved worms and sponges.

"Every time we go back, we find something new, and sometimes it’s something truly extraordinary," Joseph Botting, an independent researcher and honorary research fellow at Amgueddfa Cymru, said in the statement. "There are a lot of unanswered questions, and this site is going to keep producing new discoveries for decades."

Botting and co-author Lucy Muir discovered the site near their home in Llandrindod Wells during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. The exact location is a secret for the site’s protection and by request of the landowner, but the authors describe it as a small quarry within a sheep field.

The pair spent more than 100 days at the site, carefully extracting the fossils as the landowner’s sheep watched them work. "The sheep appear to have found us interesting, rather than disruptive," the authors wrote in a reporting summary attached to the study.

Botting and Muir are both independent researchers and not employed as academics, so they crowdfunded to buy a microscope to study the fossils in more detail, many of which were at most 0.1 inch (3 millimeters) long, according to a statement released by the pair. They then teamed up with an international team of colleagues to complete the newly published research.

The ecosystem preserved at Castle Bank may have been a nursery for young animals, with only juvenile examples of the most common trilobite species — named Ogyginus corndensis — found at the site. However, the study authors also noted that the small size of the fossils, in general, was "striking" and may simply be a feature of the community of animals that lived there.


Video: INSECTS HAVE MULTIPLE BRAINS: Decapitated wasp grabs its head before flying away

[This is not something that one would even believe is possible. This is amazing. Jan]

One person wrote some interesting comments on this video:

“Not a biologist, but have some basic knowledge of bug anatomy that i kinda remember, insects don’t have a “brain” in their head, they have a series of small brains called a ganglion that are in a few places in their body, so a separate brain would control one pair of legs, and another controls the wings, etc. so this wasp has managed to lose its head, but was not killed by the injury or other problems, which means that its body’s ganglions are intact and controlling the body with not much issue other than that theres no more signals coming from the eyes (and antennae and other head sensors). Not sure why it picked up the head, but for the most part this wasp will be totally fine to fly around until it eventually starves to death in the very near future.“

Here’s the video:

Science: Mystery of prehistoric, alien-like tully monster deepens once more

Tully monsters haunted Earth’s oceans 300 million years ago and left behind such bizarre fossils that researchers haven’t even agreed on whether these strange creatures had backbones. Now, more than 60 years after the strange creature’s discovery in 1958, a new investigation using 3D lasers finds that the Tully monster was likely an invertebrate, but not everyone is convinced.

This alien-looking evolutionary oddball — only found in the Mazon Creek fossil beds in Illinois — had a soft body, eyes on stalks, and a claw-like appendage coming out of its face. Other aspects of its anatomy, however, are open to interpretation.

The latest research, published April 16 in the journal Palaeontology, is one of a slew of studies attempting to classify the creature.

Most recent Tully monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium) studies argue that it’s either a vertebrate relative of modern cyclostomes (including lampreys and hagfish) in the chordate group or an unknown invertebrate. Now, researchers in Japan think they’ve cracked the case, with the help of a 3D laser scanner.

"We believe that the mystery of it being an invertebrate or vertebrate has been solved," first author Tomoyuki Mikami, a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo and a researcher at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, said in a statement. "Based on multiple lines of evidence, the vertebrate hypothesis of the Tully monster is untenable."

Related: Ancient ‘Tully monster’ was a vertebrate, not a spineless blob, study claims

The researchers scanned more than 150 Tully monster fossils to create color-coded 3D maps of the animal’s anatomical structures. They also X-rayed one well-preserved proboscis — the claw-like appendage — to examine the creature’s teeth.

The results suggested that features previously used to argue Tully monsters are near cyclostomes taxonomically, including their teeth and gill pouches, were misinterpreted. The teeth analyzed in the new study had bulging bases — unlike cyclostome teeth, which are thinner at the base. The authors said what appeared to be gills was actually just segmentation in the body.

Most convincing of all, the team claims, is segmentation found on the creature’s head. "This characteristic is not known in any vertebrate lineage, suggesting a nonvertebrate affinity," Mikami said.

Victoria McCoy, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is not convinced, however. McCoy led a 2016 study placing Tully monsters near cyclosomes and a 2020 study that found Tully monster tissues were made up of proteins like those of vertebrates — and not chitin, like those of invertebrates.

"It didn’t change my mind about what the Tully monster was," McCoy told Live Science. "But it is new information, and that definitely advances our understanding."

McCoy was excited by the researchers’ application of 3D imaging but had "minor technical quibbles with some of their conclusions." She argued that cyclostomes are very diverse in the fossil record and thus some species could have had the bulging-based teeth documented in the study. She also noted that the anatomy of animals preserved in Mazon Creek separates and shifts, which could account for the appearance of segmentation.

"The real-life morphology gets changed a lot during fossilization," McCoy said. "If you have a thousand specimens, any one feature might be preserved a hundred different ways."

Deciding where the Tully monster belongs is significant because the species is so unusual that it will expand the diversity of whatever group it ends up in, changing the way we think about that group.

The latest study also puts forward a potential compromise for the discrepancies: that Tully monsters could possibly be nonvertebrate chordates like modern tunicates or lancelets. For now, however, the Tully monster’s place on the evolutionary tree remains unclear.


Space: NASA’s 1st nuclear-powered rocket could launch as soon as 2025

[I can't wait to see nuclear powered rockets! Now you're going in the right direction! Jan]

The U.S. plans to launch the world’s first nuclear-powered spacecraft into orbit as early as 2025, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have announced.

The $499 million mission, named Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), will be the first test for a new type of rocket propulsion system that the agencies claim could send astronauts to Mars in just 45 days.

The agencies, which have partnered to develop the rocket, announced on July 26 that they had reached an agreement with the U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin to design, build and test the prototype.

Related: To the moon! NASA launches Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ever built

"We’re going to put this together, we’re going to fly this demonstration, gather a bunch of great data and really, we believe, usher in a new age for the United States [and] for humankind, to support our space exploration mission," Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lockheed Martin Lunar Exploration Campaigns, said during a press conference.

NASA’s current rocket systems — including the Space Launch System that last year sent the Artemis 1 rocket on a historic round-trip to the moon — are based on the century-old method of chemical propulsion, in which flammable rocket fuel is mixed with an oxidizer to create a flaming jet of thrust.

The proposed nuclear system, on the other hand, will harness the chain reaction from ripping apart atoms to power the spacecraft. The nuclear fission reactor will be "three or more times more efficient" and could reduce Mars flight times to a fraction of the current seven months, NASA said.

Nuclear engines generate less maximum thrust than their chemical counterparts but can fire more efficiently for extended periods of time — propelling rockets at much higher speeds and for significantly longer portions of their journey.

NASA began its research into nuclear thermal engines in 1959, eventually leading to the design and construction of the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA), a solid-core nuclear reactor that was successfully tested on Earth. Plans to fire the engine in space, however, were scrapped following the end of the Apollo missions in 1973 and a sharp reduction in the program’s funding.

DRACO’s reactor will work by splitting uranium atoms inside a nuclear reactor — a process that will superheat hydrogen before blasting it out of the spacecraft’s thruster to push it forward.

Before it is heated to a searing 4,400 degrees Fahrenheit (2,427 degrees Celsius), DRACO’s hydrogen propellant will need to be kept at an ultra-cold minus 420 F (minus 251 C) — a major challenge for the spacecraft’s developers.

"Our life-limiting factor is how long we can keep the hydrogen cryogenic," Tabitha Dodson, the DRACO program manager at DARPA, said during the press briefing. "This is just as much a demonstration of on-orbit storage of cryogenic liquid hydrogen as it is a demo of the nuclear thermal rocket engine."

Once the spacecraft is assembled, it will be sent into a high orbit between 435 miles and 1,240 miles (700 to 2,000 kilometers) above Earth, allowing it to last roughly 300 years in orbit — long enough for its dangerously radioactive fuel to decay to safe levels, Dodson said.