The world’s oldest starfish ancestor found by Cambridge University scientists can help modern sea creatures stave off the threat of extinction.
Researchers studying the 480-million-year-old fossil have said it is a “missing link” that will help to “preserve” modern-day starfish at threat due to climate change.
The fossil was found in the Anti-Atlas mountain range, in Morocco, and is the earliest starfish-like animal, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters.
The species, named Cantabrigiaster fezouataensis, captures the evolutionary steps of the animal at a time in Earth’s history when life suddenly expanded, a period known as the Ordovician Biodiversification Event.
Evolutionary palaeoecologist Dr Aaron Hunter, of Cambridge University, said: "Finding this missing link to their ancestors is incredibly exciting.
“However starfish are at risk themselves, starfish inhabit the seas around Antarctica and are at risk from melting ice through climate change.
“The area of Morocco this starfish ancestor was discovered was around the south pole 480 million years ago and so our starfish came from these cold polar waters.
“By studying ancient polar communities we can help fellow scientists understand and preserve these fragile communities.”
Credit: Cambridge University
Dr Hunter’s team examined the new species to assess how the fossil species was related to other members of the echinoderm family – a diverse group including sea cucumbers and starfish.
They found that the fossil lacks roughly 60 per cent of a modern starfish’s body plan, with its features instead a hybrid between those of a starfish and a sea lily or crinoid – not a plant but a wavy-armed filter feeder which fixes itself to the seabed via a cylindrical "stem".
The study’s authors plan to expand their work in search of early echinoderms.
"One thing we hope to answer in the future is why starfish developed their five arms," said Dr Hunter.
"It seems to be a stable shape for them to adopt – but we don’t yet know why.
"We still need to keep searching for the fossil that gives us that particular connection, but by going right back to the early ancestors like Cantabrigiaster, we are getting closer to that answer."