When animals come across a nasty predator, their first instinct is to run and hide. There are, however, some clear setbacks to this tried-and-tested method: The prey has to be faster than its predator, for example. For those that aren’t, a smarter defense strategy may evolve. The armadillo has its bony armor and the porcupine can ram its quills into predators. Now, researchers may have discovered the first soft-bodied animals on Earth to have employed a similarly creative protective mechanism. The creature, named Collinsium ciliosum, or Hairy Collins' Monster, armors itself by covering its body in spikes.
This animal, discovered from a half-a-billion-year-old fossil, is thought to be an early ancestor of modern velvet worms. While the lifestyle of modern velvet worms isn’t particularly exciting, Dr Javier Ortega-Hernández, one of the paper's lead authors, says in a statement that their distant relatives were "stunningly diverse and came in a surprising variety of bizarre shapes and sizes."
This "eccentric" ancestor to the rather straight-laced modern velvet worm was found in modern China. The "super-armored" Chinese Collins' Monster didn't only use its spikes to protect itself from predators; they also functioned as a specialized mode of feeding. The fossil was remarkably well preserved as researchers were able to identify details of the full body organization, which included the digestive tract and hair-like structures on the front end.
The animal had a "squishy" body with six pairs of front legs, and nine pairs of clawed rear legs. Its body was also covered with 72 sharp and pointy spikes of various sizes. Researchers suggest that the Chinese Collins' Monster's impressive defense mechanisms evolved as a result of its sedentary lifestyle.
The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that this is the first recorded instance of the evolutionary pattern where diverse ancestors evolved into unvaried modern relatives in mostly soft-bodied groups.