Embryology in deep time

Philip C J Donoghue*, John A. Cunningham, Xi Ping Dong, Stefan Bengtson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book

11 Citations (Scopus)


For anyone who has cared for animal embryos, it beggars belief that these squishy cellular aggregates could be fossilised. Hence, with hindsight, it is possible to empathise with palaeontologists who found such fossils and, in their naming of Olivooides, Pseudooides, etc., drew attention to their likeness to animal eggs and embryos but without going so far as to propose such an interpretation. However, in 1994, Zhang Xi-guang and Brian Pratt described microscopic balls of calcium phosphate from Cambrian rocks of China, one or two of which preserved polygonal borders that resembled blastomeres on the surface of an early cleaving animal embryo. In retrospect, these fossils are far from remarkable, some of them may not be fossils at all, and it is not as if anyone ever conceived Cambrian animals as having lacked an embryology. But Zhang Xi-guang and Brian Pratt dared the scientific world, not least their fellow palaeontologists, to believe that the fragile embryonic stages of invertebrate animals could be fossilised, that there was a fossil record of animal embryology, that this record hailed from the interval of time in which animal body plans were first established, and that it had been awaiting discovery in the rocks, for want of looking. The proof of this concept came a few years later, when phosphatised Cambrian fossils from China and Siberia were shown to display indisputable features of animal embryonic morphologies. In the case of Olivooides, a series of developmental stages from cleavage to morphogenesis through hatching and juvenile growth could be tentatively identified; in Markuelia, the coiled-up body of an annulated worm-like animal could be clearly seen within its fertilisation envelope.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEvolutionary Developmental Biology of Invertebrates 1: Introduction, Non-Bilateria, Acoelomorpha, Xenoturbellida, Chaetognatha
PublisherSpringer Vienna
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9783709118627, 9783709118610
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


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