Prehistoric restaurants needed bigger water tanks: giant ‘lobster’ discovered

12 Mar 2015

Illustration via Marianne Collins/Nature

A newly discovered six-foot ‘lobster’ has been discovered in Morocco, an early ancestor of today’s crustaceans and spiders.

Almost 500m years ago, Aegirocassis benmoulae roamed around the planet’s oceans, the filter-feeding lobster-like creature being the oldest species of its kind ever found.

With spines on its head filtering seawater to trap tiny bits of food, it looks terrifying, but then so did everything else back then presumably.

“It implies there was a rich source of plankton at the time, upon which these things may have fed,” said Derek Briggs, a paleontologist at Yale University and one of the study’s authors, in The New York Times.

It’s the big show

Peter Van Roy, a paleontologist at Yale University, claims Aegirocassis benmoulae wasn’t just “one of the very biggest arthropods that ever existed”, it was actually one of the largest animals of any kind around in the Ordovician geological period, which is when there was an explosion in the various types of sea life on Earth.

“(It was) the biggest diversification in marine animal life that we’ve ever known,” says Van Roy in NPR, and it took place across 25m years. The ‘diversification’ turned out to be a bonanza for this creature, because a lot of this new life was plankton.

“If you’re filter-feeding, of course, you probably are not going to be able to defend yourself,” said Van Roy. “You’re not going to have, like, big fangs or anything. So, one way of escaping from predation is just by growing so massive that there’s … simply nothing else that can tackle you.”

3D, not just a gimmick

The remains – discovered by Mohamed Ben Moula after painstakingly detailed chipping away at surrounding rock in Morocco – were found in 3D form, aiding studies significantly.

“These animals are filling an ecological role that hadn’t previously been filled by any other animal,” said Dr Allison Daley in The Guardian.

“While filter-feeding is probably one of the oldest ways for animals to find food, previous filter-feeders were smaller, and usually attached to the sea floor. We have found the oldest example of gigantism in a freely swimming filter-feeder.

“Without these 3D remains, we may never have got the insight into these animals’ anatomy that we did,” said Daley.

The study has been published in Nature.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic