Media Releases

University of Toronto/Royal Ontario Museum scientists discover unusual “tulip” creature

January 19, 2012

TORONTO, ON — A bizarre crea­ture that lived in the ocean more than 500 mil­lion years ago has emerged from the famous Mid­dle Cam­bri­an Burgess Shale in the Cana­di­an Rock­ies.

Offi­cial­ly named Siphusauc­tum gre­gar­i­um, fos­sils reveal a tulip-shaped crea­ture that is about the length of a din­ner knife (approx­i­mate­ly 20 cen­time­tres) and has a unique fil­ter feed­ing sys­tem.

Siphusauc­tum has a long stem, with a calyx – a bul­bous cup-like struc­ture – near the top which enclos­es an unusu­al fil­ter feed­ing sys­tem and a gut. The ani­mal is thought to have fed by fil­ter­ing par­ti­cles from water active­ly pumped into its calyx through small holes. The stem ends with a small disc which anchored the ani­mal to the seafloor. Siphusauc­tum lived in large clus­ters, as indi­cat­ed by slabs con­tain­ing over 65 indi­vid­ual spec­i­mens.

Lor­na O’Brien, a PhD can­di­date in the Depart­ment of Ecol­o­gy and Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and her super­vi­sor Jean-Bernard Caron, cura­tor of inver­te­brate palaeon­tol­ogy at the Roy­al Ontario Muse­um, report on the dis­cov­ery today in the online sci­ence jour­nal PLoS ONE.

“Most inter­est­ing is that this feed­ing sys­tem appears to be unique among ani­mals. Recent advances have linked many bizarre Burgess Shale ani­mals as prim­i­tive mem­bers of many ani­mal groups that are found today but Siphusauc­tum defies this trend.  We do not know where it fits in rela­tion to oth­er organ­isms,” said O’Brien.

“Our descrip­tion is based on more than 1,100 fos­sil spec­i­mens from a new Burgess Shale local­i­ty that has been nick­named the Tulip Beds,” said lead author O’Brien. Locat­ed in Yoho Nation­al Park, British Colum­bia, the Tulip Beds were first dis­cov­ered in 1983 by the Roy­al Ontario Muse­um. They are locat­ed high on Mount Stephen, over­look­ing the town of Field. Like the rest of the Burgess Shale, the Beds rep­re­sent rock lay­ers with excep­tion­al preser­va­tion of most­ly soft-bod­ied organ­isms. The Burgess Shale, pro­tect­ed under the larg­er Rocky Moun­tain Parks UNESCO World Her­itage site and man­aged by Parks Cana­da, pre­serves fos­sil evi­dence of some of the ear­li­est com­plex ani­mals that lived in the oceans of our plan­et near­ly 505 mil­lion years ago. The dis­cov­ery of Siphusauc­tum expands the range of ani­mal diver­si­ty that exist­ed dur­ing this time peri­od.

The research was par­tial­ly fund­ed by UofT fel­low­ships to O’Brien and a Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da Dis­cov­ery Grant award­ed to Caron.

To learn more about the Burgess Shale vis­it

IMAGES and PLoS One paper here:


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Lor­na O’Brien
Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
416–586-5592 ex.3
Mobile: 647–966-7555

Jean-Bernard Caron
Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy and Geol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Cura­tor, Inver­te­brate Palaeon­tol­ogy
Roy­al Ontario Muse­um

Kim Luke
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Omar McDa­di
Parks Cana­da, Media Rela­tions