New research involving North East experts is probing newly-discovered fossils of large creatures which roamed the Earth’s oceans more than which 520 million years ago.
They filtered food from the water in a similar way to today’s blue whales, according to Durham University.
The fossils from North Greenland showed that these ancient giant marine animals used bizarre facial appendages to trawl for plankton and other organisms from the seas. The findings also revealed that the creatures evolved from large marine predators, feeding on prey such as trilobites - creatures with an external skeleton- to gentle giants feeding on small organisms and organic matter suspended in water.
The North Greenland fossil, called Tamisiocaris, was a member of a group of early marine animals which swam using a set of flaps down either side of the body and probably captured large prey with specialised grasping appendages in the front of the mouth.
However, the research also demonstrates that the Tamisiocaris had evolved into a suspension feeder by modifying its grasping appendages into a filtering apparatus that could be swept like a net through the water trapping small crustaceans and other organisms as tiny as half a millimetre in size. The research involved Durham, Bristol, Bath and Copenhagen universities.
The fossils of Tamisiocaris were found in rocks aged 480 to 520 million years old and were collected on a series of recent expeditions led by research co-author Professor David Harper in the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University.
Mr Harper, who is professor of palaeontology, and also principal of Van Mildert College at Durham University said: “The expeditions have unearthed a real treasure trove of new soft bodied fossils in one of the remotest parts of the planet.Many new fossil animals are still waiting to be described.
“Our new interpretation of this remarkable animal adds another piece to a fascinating jigsaw puzzle. Not only was animal life already diverse, but marine ecosystems clearly had hitherto hidden layers of complexity.”
The research provides further clues into the ecosystems hundreds of millions of years ago.
Dr Jakob Vinther, a lecturer in macroevolution at the University of Bristol, said: “The fact that large, free-swimming suspension feeders roamed the oceans tells us a lot about the ecosystem.”