A new ‘great-appendage’ arthropod from the Lower Cambrian of China and homology of chelicerate chelicerae and raptorial antero-ventral appendages

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Abstract

The uniramous ‘great appendages’ of several arthropods from the Early to Middle Cambrian are a characteristic pair of pre-oral limbs, which served for prey capture. It has been assumed that the morphological differences between the ‘great-appendage’ arthropods indicate that raptorial antero-ventral and anteriorly pointing appendages evolved more than once in arthropod phylogeny. One set of Cambrian ‘great-appendage’ arthropods has, however, very similar short antero-ventral appendages with a peduncle of two segments angled against each other (elbowed) and with stout distally or medio-distally directed spines or long flexible flagellate spines on each of the four distal segments. Moreover, the head appendages of all these forms comprise the ‘great appendages’ and three pairs of biramous limbs. To this set of taxa we can add a new form from the Lower Cambrian Maotianshan Shale of southern China, Haikoucaris ercaiensis n. gen. and n. sp. It is known from three specimens, possibly being little abundant in the faunal community. It can be distinguished from all other taxa by the prominence of the proximal claw segment of its ‘great appendages’ and by only three distal spines (one on each of the distal segments). The similarity of the short, spiky ‘great appendages’ of Haikoucaris with the chelicera of the Chelicerata leads us to hypothesize that this particular type of ‘great appendages’ was the actual precursor of the chelicera. Homeobox gene and developmental data recently demonstrated the homology between the antenna of ateloceratans and the antennula of crustaceans on one side and the chelicera of chelicerates on the other. To this we add palaeontological evidence for the homology between the chelicerae of chelicerates and the ‘short great appendages’ of certain Cambrian arthropods, which leads us to hypothesize that the evolutionary path went from the ‘short great appendages’, by progressive compaction, toward the chelicera with only a two-spined chela. The new form from China is regarded as the possible latest offshoot, whereas the other ‘great appendages’ arthropods with similar short grasping limbs were derivatives of the stem lineage of the crown-group Chelicerata. Consequently, the chelicera with a chela with one fixed and one mobile finger is an autapomorphy of the crown group of Chelicerata, whereas a raptorial, but more limb-like antenna, with more distal spine-bearing segments, characterized the ground pattern of Chelicerata. Further taxa having ‘great appendages’, including the large Anomalocarididae, are also discussed in the light of their possible affinities to the Chelicerata and possible monophyly of all of these arthropods with raptorial anterior appendages.

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