My daily moment of extreme nerdiness: Of Hallucigenia, velvet worms and water bears

I am experiencing sheer, pure nerdiness, and I am loving every minute of it.  Before I get into topic, I want to categorically state that I am a proud nerd.  Why?  Some of my thoughts are explained here.

Ok, what triggered these feelings today?  I heard about this paper:

Hallucigenia’s onychophoran-like claws and the case for Tactopoda by the Cambridge University scientists Martin R. Smith & Javier Ortega-Hernandez.  Published online in Nature.  Not in print yet!

This paper is about one of the weirdest type of fossil animals ever studied; they are named Hallucigenia. Truth be told, even if they were still alive they would still be some of the weirdest animals ever. You’ll see why in a moment.

This animal was part of a fascinating fauna that lived half a billion years ago, its fossils found mainly at places such as the Burgess shale in Canada and in similar geological locations throughout the world. These “Weirdest forms, most beautiful” represent what populated the world during the so-called Cambrian explosion. There are two really interesting popular science books that narrate the story of the discovery of the Burgess shale and all the strange organisms found there, of which Hallucigenia was but only one. The first book is Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould (again, how I miss the writings of that pompous guy!). The other book is The Crucible of Creation by Simon Conway Morris, the very paleontologist who described Hallucigenia.


Hallucigenia were small worm-like organisms, with a twist: They had seven pairs of spines radiating from the central “worm” in one side and a series of tentacles in the other. In fact, the original reconstruction by Conway Morris was later found to be incorrect; he pictured the critter upside down.


Credit: and

There’s absolutely no shame in that mistake; I dare you to do better. I would have messed up royally as well, the little animal is weird enough!

In the Smith and Ortega-Hernandez paper they examined the claw morphology of an Hallucigenia specimen and compared it to the claws and jaws of an existing organism, member of the broad family of the velvet worms. They found significant similarities in both. I have always liked velvet worms!



Furthermore, based on phylogenetic analyses, the authors were also able to determine that another type of modern organisms, the tardigrades or “water bears” seem to be related to hallucigenia as well. Now these microscopic guys are tough! Just to give you an idea, they are the first class of animals able to survive the vacuum of space! I love water bears too and I use their example all the time in our astrobiology course.


The presumed relationship between Hallucigenia, velvet worms and tardigrades was proposed in the early 1990s-2000s (see for example The Ecology of the Cambrian Radiation by Andrey Zhuravlev and Robert Riding, Columbia University Press 2000), but the Smith/Ortega-Hernandez paper provides hard evidence for it!

Now, this research will not probably change the world, while being invaluable at the same time. Fundamental research give us the tools to truly understand nature and therefore ourselves. Others have made a much better case than I in favor of fundamental research.

My point now is that as far as i am concerned, for the first time in a while, I felt the exhilaration of learning about a scientific datum, however insignificant to most. I felt again what Francis Crick described as the gossip test, which is supposed to give you an indication of your true vocation.

I am a biologist at heart.


Want to see more of the things I write? Go here for some other posts. By the way, I wrote a book!


TFB is available as an ebook (Kindle, Nook, as well as in iTunes). The price of the Kindle version was just reduced by Amazon… (:-)

The hardcover is available at Amazon and at the Oxford University Press’ website.  There’s even a 20% discount code from OUP.

This is a popular science book, which I hope to be enjoyed by laypeople and biologists alike.

Shoot me a message if you have any questions!

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