Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giant Sea Scorpion!

We usually think of invertebrates as small animals, and arthropods in particular as being limited by the structural engineering of an exoskeleton, which is less capable of supporting large body sizes than an endoskeleton. A new fossil discovery however should creep out anyone who thinks that crabs and lobsters are already bigger than a decent invertebrate should be.

From a 43 cm long claw of the fossil eurypterid (sea scorpion) species Jaekelopterus rhenaniae found in Germany, researchers extrapolated the length of the animal's body to be between 233 to 259 cm, using claw size to body length ratios from other sea scorpinons. Eurypterids are members of the extinct subclass Eurypterida within the class Merostomata of the subphylum Chelicerata, i.e. they were chelicerates (like spiders and scorpions) most closely related to the horseshoe crabs.

Eurypterids were aquatic and the buoyancy conferred by water may help explain structurally their large size, but what about the problem of gaseous diffusion to tissues? They presumably had an open circulatory system like other arthropods which is less efficient than the closed circulation of vertebrates. The authors hypothesise that the higher oxygen levels in the atmosphere in the past could have helped them attain their large size, or that it was driven by an evolutionary arms race with their prey.

Some questions to think about:

  • Why is extrapolation using data from other sea scorpions a valid means of predicting the body length of the animal from only its claw?
  • Among the extant (still living) chelicerates, how do the methods of gas exchange differ between the aquatic and terrestrial groups?
  • What can we infer about its mode of feeding and possible prey?
  • How can we explain why such giant arthropods are no longer extant today?

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