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New phylum on the block  November 23, 2001
The Cambrian of China has produced yet another new (and wholly extinct) phylum – the Vetulicolia

In this week's issue of the science journal Nature, researchers report the grouping of some curious Cambrian fossils into a new phylum — a natural group of animals united by a distinctive body plan. Called the Vetulicolia, this phylum contains members — all of which are extinct — whose unusual anatomy could shed light on the long-vexed question of vertebrate origins.

D. G. Shu of Northwest University, Xi'an, China, and colleagues discuss several fossil animals from the Chengjiang fauna of southern China. This remarkable assemblage of exotic forms is comparable with, and slightly older than, the fossils of the Burgess Shale of western Canada. Shu's team describes the exquisite fossils of an unusual, partially segmented creature and, in an extended comparison with three other known fossils create the Vetulicolia.

They suggest that this phylum belongs to the Deuterostomia, the group that includes echinoderms (starfishes, sea urchins and allies), hemichordates (the obscure acorn-worms and pterobranchs) and chordates (vertebrates, including ourselves, as well as tunicates and the amphioxus Branchiostoma). If their interpretation is correct, vetulicolians represent a wholly new and yet very primitive deuterostome body plan.

Discovering the evolutionary root of such an important group would be a major event. These well-preserved fossils are evidence for a previously unrecognized group, which displays many of the characteristics predicted for primitive or basal deuterostomes — including pharyngeal slits and a distinct segmented tail.

Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature, discusses the background and implications of this work in an accompanying News and Views article.

  • Ref: Primitive deuterostomes from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte (Lower Cambrian, China) D.-G. SHU, S. CONWAY MORRIS, J. HAN, L. CHEN, X.-L. ZHANG, Z.-F. ZHANG, H.-Q. LIU, Y. LI & J.-N. LIU Nature 414, 419–424 (22 November 2001)

Pictures: Vetulicolians, courtesy,

  • a,b, Didazoon haoae, a, ELI-0000197, two superimposed specimen s, upper with intestine in posterior section showing spiral arrangement of contents, lower with excavated anterior section showing gills and possible endostyle; b, ELI-0000199, with incompletely preserved anterior section and recurved posterior. 
  • c,d, Xidazoon stephanus, c, Specimen ELI-0000206, anterior section with mouth region. d, Specimen ELI-0000205A, ventral view of anterior section showing mouth cone and possible endostyle. 
  • e,f, Vetulicola cuneata, e, ELI-0000214, entire specimen with prominent gills. f, ELI-0000485, entire specimen with prominent gill-tubes. 
  • g,h, Vetulicola rectangulata, g, ELI-0000306B, complete specimen; h, ELI-0000318, complete specimen. Scale bars millimetric

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