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Fossil of Ancient Balloon-Shaped Animal Found

Dec 09, 2014 12:12 PM EST

Scientists have found the fossil of an ancient balloon-shaped animal in China, which they hope can shed some light on Earth's early sea life, according to new research.

Dating back 520 million years ago, Nidelric pugio - named for the late University of Leicester scientist Richard Aldridge - most likely belongs to the unique group called "chancelloriid." These bizarre creatures look like inflated balloons, with an outer skeleton made of pointy spines to defend themselves against predators.

Though the animal may have been covered in spines while it was living, they have since lost their sharpness given the fact that the animal was flattened during the fossilization process, making it look like a squashed birds nest.

An international research team at the Yunnan University in China, in collaboration with the universities of Leicester and Oxford, found the fossil in an ancient treasure trove in Chengjiang in southern China, where there is a diverse array of fossils preserved within the rocks, including legs, eyes, guts and brains. Among the fossils discovered are distant relatives of arthropods, such as crabs and lobsters, as well as mystery fossils that do not appear to fit with any living animal today - including chancelloriids, which provide insight into Earth's ancient oceans.

"We usually only get the broken-up remains of ancient animal skeletons," Tom Hearing, who is working on the skeleton of Cambrian fossils, said in a statement. "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."

The name of the fossil comes from the Latin Nidus, meaning "bird's nest" or "fancied resemblance to," as well as from adelric, from the Old English name Aedelic, which means "noble" and "ruler" and is the origin of the name Aldridge.

"We are glad the fossil can honor 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," added study co-author Tom Harvey.

The balloon-shaped fossil is described in the journal Scientific Reports.

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