Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

PLATASTERIAS LATIRADIATA - THE LIVING FOSSIL THAT NEVER WAS

Platasterias latiradiata - dorsal view

Fifty years ago saw the remarkable elevation of a hitherto-obscure invertebrate species to the rank of a veritable living fossil - but was it? The following fascinating episode from the zoological chronicles is excerpted from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, due to be published next month.

The most familiar members of the phylum Echinodermata are the starfishes, which have traditionally been divided into two subclasses - Euasteroidea (the true starfishes), housing all of the modern-day species; and Somasteroidea, known only from fossil species dating back to the early Ordovician Period, some 488-478 million years ago. (More recently, Somasteroidea has been elevated from a sub-class to a class in its own right by some workers.) During the 1960s, however, Somasteroidea experienced a most unexpected (albeit only temporary) renaissance.

The seeds for this had been sown some years earlier, when Prof. H. Barraclough Fell, from New Zealand's Victoria University, had become very interested in the obscure species Platasterias latiradiata from Mexico's Pacific coast, described in 1871 but still virtually unknown. After studying the meagre amount of published data concerning its structural anatomy, he began to wonder whether it really was a true starfish after all, because it seemed to exhibit certain features more comparable to those of somasteroids than eusasteroids - including petal-shaped arms whose skeletal components resembled rod-like structures called virgalia (possessed by somasteroids but not by euasteroids).

Yet to satisfy himself totally, Fell needed to examine a specimen of this enigmatic echinoderm - which immediately posed a problem, as earlier enquiries to museums in Mexico had failed to elicit one. Undaunted, he contacted Alisa M. Clark, Curator of Echinoderms at the British Museum (Natural History), and promptly received a portion of an arm from a preserved Platasterias. From his study of this vital material, he felt sure that the arm's ventral skeleton was indeed constructed from virgalia-like rods, and other anatomical features likewise seemed to substantiate a somasteroid identity for it.

Thus, in December 1961 Fell announced that Platasterias was a living somasteroid, thereby resurrecting an entire subclass of echinoderms from 400 million years of extinction. In 1962, he published details of his structural analysis of Platasterias and his conclusions in several scientific journals, which attracted appreciable zoological interest.

By 1966, however, doubts regarding the somasteroid affinities of Platasterias had begun to be voiced. In particular, Dr F. Jensenius Madsen, of Copenhagen's Zoological Museum, opined that the virgalia of somasteroids were not so significant as previously thought. The skeleton of euasteroids is composed of numerous bone-like knobs called ossicles, and Madsen considered virgalia to be nothing more than ventrolaterally-sited versions of these, thereby reducing their taxonomic value. Leading on from this, he postulated that Platasterias was merely a somewhat aberrant member of the starfish genus Luidia, and that its distinctive petal-shaped arms were simply an adaptation for life on an unsteady sandy seafloor. His opinion swiftly gained support from other researchers (notably Dr D.B. Blake) investigating ossicle structure in starfishes; so by the early 1970s Platasterias was not only reclassified as a euasteroid, but was also renamed, becoming Luidia latiradiata - thereby jettisoning the subclass Somasteroidea back into Ordovician obscurity.

Platasterias latiradiata - ventral view

3 comments:

  1. Barry Fell was supposed to be a real capable marine biologist who wrote a successful textbook. However, his diffusionism was enough to quell ones enthusiasm for the subject. For example, in one of his books there is a photo of him standing next to a stone with obvious drill wholes from where it was blasted apart. He made the absurd claim this was tifinagh script which is written with various straight lines or bars.

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  2. The Starfish like creature in the diagram has close living relatives. Starfish have existed since the Cambrian period. Other living fossils are Scorpions. Living Scorpions have existed since the Carboniferous period between 354 to 295 million years ago while the first Scorpions appeared 430 million years ago during the Silurian period. Living Tarantulas have existed since the Mesozoic era during the Dinosaur age while the earliest Tarantulas may have existed 405 million years ago during the Devonian period Paleozoic era. Centipedes may also be from the Devonian period 410 million years ago. Horseshoe Crabs have existed maybe 350 million years during the Carboniferous period. The most ancient living fossils would be the Jellyfish which have existed anywhere from 700 million years ago to 1 billion 100 million years ago during the Precambrian era when earths atmosphere was low in oxygen and unbreathable. Sharks have existed for 350 million years since the Carboniferous period. Cockroaches have been around for 350 million years and Ants have been around for 100 million years. By contrast Bison and Polar Bears are geologically young being less than a million years old. To a human its hard to imagine millions of years. There are living fossils all around us.

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  3. Hello Dr. Shuker,
    First of all, I am sorry about my bad writing on English. I am from Mexico. I am intrigued because my father told me just a few days ago that when he was young (maybe in the 60s of XX century), he saw and touched in a beach in the state of Veracruz (Isla de Lobos, Tuxpan, Ver.), Mexico, TRANSPARENTS STARFISHES. My Father said me that the starfishes were so fragile that easily broke on his hands. The transparente starfishes had a diameter of about 6 or 7 cm. They had five arms as triangles. Actually, the Veracruz' beaches are so polluted with oil (petroleum), that I'm afraid that possibly these species of starfishes became extincted. Do you know information about transparent starfishes?

    Sincerely yours.
    Jose Amero.

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