Exceptional soft tissue preservation reveals a cnidarian affinity for a Cambrian phosphatic tubicolous enigma

Guangxu Zhang, Luke A Parry, Jakob Vinther, Xiaoya Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Exoskeletal dwelling tubes are widespread among extant animals and early fossil assemblages. Exceptional fossils from the Cambrian reveal independent origins of tube dwelling by several clades including cnidarians, lophophorates, annelids, scalidophorans, panarthropods and ambulacrarians. However, most fossil tubes lack preservation of soft parts, making it difficult to understand their affinities and evolutionary significance. Gangtoucunia aspera (Wulongqing Formation, Cambrian Stage 4) was an annulated, gradually expanding phosphatic tube, with occasional attachments of multiple, smaller juveniles and has previously been interpreted as the dwelling tube of a 'worm' (e.g. a scalidophoran), lophophorate or problematicum. Here, we report the first soft tissues from Gangtoucunia that reveal a smooth body with circumoral tentacles and a blind, spacious gut that is partitioned by septa. This is consistent with cnidarian polyps and phylogenetic analysis resolves Gangtoucunia as a total group medusozoan. The tube of Gangtoucunia is phenotypically similar to problematic annulated tubular fossils (e.g. Sphenothallus, Byronia, hyolithelminths), which have been compared to both cnidarians and annelids, and are among the oldest assemblages of skeletal fossils. The cnidarian characters of G. aspera suggest that these early tubular taxa are best interpreted as cnidarians rather than sessile bilaterians in the absence of contrary soft tissue evidence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20221623
JournalProceedings. Biological sciences
Issue number1986
Early online date2 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2022


  • Animals
  • Cnidaria
  • Phylogeny
  • Phosphates
  • Fossils
  • Biological Evolution
  • Tissue Preservation


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