The Hallucigenia (1977)
Phylum : Lobopodia
Order : Scleronychophora
Family : Hallucigeniidae
Genus : Hallucigenia
Species : H. sparsa, H. fortis, H. hongmeia
- Late Cambrian (505 Ma)
- 3,5 cm long (size)
- Canada (map)
Hallucigenia is a 0.5—3.5 cm long tubular organism with seven or eight pairs of slender legs, each terminating with a pair of claws. Above each leg is a rigid conical spine. The ‘head’ and ‘tail’ end of the organism are difficult to identify; one end extends some distance beyond the legs and often droops down as if to reach the floor. Although some specimens display traces of a gut, the internal anatomy has not been formally described.
Hallucigenia’s spines are made up of one to four nested elements. Their surface is covered in an ornament of minute triangular ‘scales’.
Hallucigenia was originally described by Walcott as a species of the polychaete worm Canadia. In his 1977 redescription of the organism, Simon Conway Morris recognized the animal as something quite distinct, establishing the new genus. No specimen was available that showed both rows of legs, and as such Conway Morris reconstructed the animal walking on its spines, with its single row of legs interpreted as tentacles on the animal’s back. A dark stain at one end of the animal was interpreted as a featureless head. Only the forward tentacles could easily reach to the ‘head’, meaning that a mouth on the head would have to be fed by passing food along the line of tentacles. Conway Morris suggested that a hollow tube within each of the tentacles might be a mouth. This raised questions such as how it would walk on the stiff legs, but it was accepted as the best available interpretation. A picture of the animal as reconstructed by Morris can be found here.
An alternative interpretation considered Hallucigenia to be an appendage of a larger, unknown animal. There had been precedent for this, as the species Anomalocaris had been originally identified as three separate creatures before being identified as a single huge (for its time) 0.91 m creature. Given the uncertainty of its taxonomy, Hallucigenia was tentatively placed within the phylum Lobopodia, a catch-all clade containing numerous odd “worms with legs.”
In 1991, Lars Ramskold and Hou Xianguang, working with additional specimens of a “hallucigenid,” Microdictyon, from the lower Cambrian Maotianshan shales of China, reinterpreted Hallucigenia as an Onychophoran (velvet worm). They inverted it, interpreting the tentacles, which they believe to be paired, as walking structures and the spines as protective. Further preparation of fossil specimens showed that the ‘second legs’ were buried at an angle to the plane along which the rock had split, and could be revealed by removing the overlying sediment. Ramskold and Hou also believe that the blob-like ‘head’ is actually a stain that appears in many specimens, not a preserved portion of the anatomy.