Skip

The walking cactus
March 1, 2011 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Consider this animal, the newest fossil discovery from Jianni Liu in China. She calls it "the walking cactus." We have grasses and flowers and beetles in more varieties than you can imagine, and yet, in some deep architectural way, the developmental paths were set way back then, 500 million years ago. The Walking Cactus is just another souvenir of that crazy moment.
posted by jjray (68 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Uurgh!
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 10:54 AM on March 1, 2011


Damn, Nature.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:54 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've seen some things like that in early, black and white "Doctor Who" episodes.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:55 AM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


The stippling on that third illustration is beautiful. Possibly just because it's be resized down, making it a gorgeous gradient, but possibly not.

Also, I'll never get sick of dreamlike nature. Thanks for this.
posted by Brainy at 10:57 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


What IS it, that strange nightmarish quality all these things seem to have? Can that be measured, like the science of cuteness?

Having a living thing wandering around that is all stomach but has no discernable mouth seems to be a good place to start.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:58 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh also - these are amazing, and very cool. Nice find.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:58 AM on March 1, 2011


Nice video, but unfortunately the Field Museum's Hallucigenia specimen died in 2008, shortly after growing to tremendous size and destroying a section of downtown Chicago.
posted by theodolite at 11:00 AM on March 1, 2011 [10 favorites]


Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li
posted by Artw at 11:00 AM on March 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


would you like it steamed or deep fried ? Butter, tartar or catsup ?
posted by k5.user at 11:00 AM on March 1, 2011


If you like these, check out Jim Woodring, whose Frank books have some seriously dreamlike/nightmarish images of very similar 'creatures'.
posted by soy bean at 11:02 AM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Very interesting. There were very similar creatures in Attenborough's First Life.
posted by Solomon at 11:07 AM on March 1, 2011


no one tell notch about this.
posted by empath at 11:08 AM on March 1, 2011 [10 favorites]


That's not a head, that's a bundled up knob of ovarioles. And it is walking on its ovipositors. That bit at the other end is a echolocator with only one purpose for the ganglion nearby (composing most of the neurons of the creature): to locate crevices like ears, bellybuttons, nostrils, and mouths. Gestation in live foreign species is not uncommon, and with that many legs ... babies, babies everywhere. Look at that skin texture, so rugose.

About half a billion years ago the rapid evolutionary leaps were mostly impelled by all other macroscopic life on Earth banding together to kill those things.
posted by adipocere at 11:08 AM on March 1, 2011 [14 favorites]


Sometimes I start to become convinced that Lovecraft or the author of the Voynich Manuscript were actually recording natural history.

This is one of those times.
posted by hippybear at 11:12 AM on March 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


peachfuzz: "What IS it, that strange nightmarish quality all these things seem to have? ...Having a living thing wandering around that is all stomach but has no discernable mouth seems to be a good place to start"

I have no mouth, and I must eat!
posted by notsnot at 11:13 AM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is a part of me that is still a six-year-old tomboy. And that part of me is incoherent with glee right now.

And is imagining a T-rex walking his pet cactus on a leash. And the cactus has a spiked collar that says Rex. Six-year-old Honeydew doesn't care about the hundreds of millions of years between them. The sheer awesomeness of this duo can overcome time.
posted by honeydew at 11:15 AM on March 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Looking at that fossil, I don't see how such a fully-formed illustration and description can be inferred. How is that not just an ordinary fern or other plant? Enlighten me, as I'm clearly not a paleontologist of any sort.
posted by naju at 11:17 AM on March 1, 2011


naju: "How is that not just an ordinary fern or other plant?"

I'm glad I'm not the only person to think that.
posted by pwnguin at 11:19 AM on March 1, 2011


That's just what they want you to think.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:20 AM on March 1, 2011


would you like it steamed or deep fried ? Butter, tartar or catsup ?

I, my good man, would like it dead. And extinct.
posted by tommasz at 11:20 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ahh, Wonderful Life.
posted by TedW at 11:21 AM on March 1, 2011


Why do they never provide dimensions for these things??? I've got my insurance agent on the phone and he says he needs to know if the creature would fit through a doorway.
posted by circular at 11:24 AM on March 1, 2011 [11 favorites]


I've seen some things like that in early, black and white "Doctor Who" episodes.

Actually, I was thinking of a particular color episode... and you think this is a nightmare, wait until it's sentient, evil, and can start taking human shape.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:25 AM on March 1, 2011


Am I the only one who thinks it is cute? I may have to make a stuffie one, fill it with catnip & watch PointyCat have an epic prehistoric battle, with bunnyfooting.
posted by pointystick at 11:25 AM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Walking... cactus?

SSSSSSSSSSSssssssssssssssssssssssss
oh god I don't have my armor and obsidian door
posted by Mayor West at 11:27 AM on March 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Why do they never provide dimensions for these things???

About six centimeters long. Not too nightmarish, unless there was a horde of them undulating toward your hideout where you, paralyzed with terror, can only watch agape as thousands of eyeless, headless, soulless lobopodian monsters search for the warmth of your body cavities.

So in Imperial units, a little over 2 inches.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


Why did I click? WHY DID I CLICK?
Ugh. Nightmare fuel.

Damn you, China Miéville, for giving me Cactacae-related hopefulness.
posted by Mizu at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thank brundlefly for your nightmares; his tweet tipped me off. Though the sick urge to FPP it was mine in total.
posted by jjray at 11:35 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was thinking more like Cactrot
posted by mkb at 11:42 AM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm glad I was born a human.
posted by not_on_display at 11:43 AM on March 1, 2011


520 million years ago was the coolest.
posted by furiousthought at 11:50 AM on March 1, 2011


We homo sapiens have been here for such a relatively short time, in the life of the biosphere. Lots of evolutionary dead ends, way back there.
posted by Danf at 11:58 AM on March 1, 2011


Plucked right from the pages of the Codex Seraphinianus.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:59 AM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


naju: How is that not just an ordinary fern or other plant?

Fossil fern from 300 million years ago, looking surprisingly like modern ferns.

Also, this PDF of supplementary information accompanying the Nature.com abstract, which ties the fossil to modern-day velvet worms.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:59 AM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I actually find it kind of cute. And terrifying. It lives in the uncanny valley between aww and ahhh!
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:00 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chtorr! Chtorr!
posted by The Tensor at 12:05 PM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Walking Cactus is just another souvenir of that crazy moment.

The crazy nastyass walking cactus don't care.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:13 PM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


would you like it steamed or deep fried ? Butter, tartar or catsup ?

I don't think a Walking Cactus would be very succulent.
posted by Kabanos at 12:15 PM on March 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


jjray: "Thank brundlefly for your nightmares; his tweet tipped me off. Though the sick urge to FPP it was mine in total"

Cool! I don't think I've ever prompted an FPP before. Nightmares, on the other hand...
posted by brundlefly at 12:17 PM on March 1, 2011


Mexican cuisine would disagree, Kabanos. Which leads me to wonder, though, if cactus really did walk, would you hunt them or harvest them?
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:18 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't see why this is scary at all. I mean, a walking stomach with too many arms, covered in horrible spines? It's not as if we don't have those now.

Oh yeah, and they're huge, venomous, difficult to control, and devour threatened species.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:18 PM on March 1, 2011


Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:19 PM on March 1, 2011


Why do they never provide dimensions for these things???

Because they can't be contained by your three puny human dimensions.

If you like these, check out Jim Woodring...

I was thinking Matt Howarth, personnaly.
posted by lekvar at 12:30 PM on March 1, 2011


I remember this Cactuar prick and his 10,000 needles attack from Final Fantasy.
posted by Jorus at 12:57 PM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Starfish ancestor?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:06 PM on March 1, 2011


I was thinking starfish too, only with bilateral instead of radial symmetry.
posted by cardboard at 1:09 PM on March 1, 2011


Wow, this is exciting to me becasaue it further convinces me that this guy was also a lobopodian. I had the fortune of collecting an Acinocricus specimen and using it in my masters thesis. It was first described as an algae but reinterpreted as a lobopod in one article. I wasn't totally convinced though as the article didn't have a figure or much support in my mind. It also bothered me because it had spiney articulated "legs" and I hadnt seen another lobopod with spiney articulated legs until now. Acinocricus would have not only had spikey cactus legs, but also big spikey armor all down its back. Like a cross between Diania and Hallucinigenia only even more spikey than both! I hope it gets its day in the spotlight soon.
posted by DanielDManiel at 1:28 PM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was thinking starfish too, only with bilateral instead of radial symmetry.

I guess i can see the superficial resemblance but although early echinoderms did exhibit pure bilateral symmetry, none looked remotely like this, and echinoderms also have hard parts made of calcite unlike this guy.
posted by DanielDManiel at 1:34 PM on March 1, 2011


About half a billion years ago the rapid evolutionary leaps were mostly impelled by all other macroscopic life on Earth banding together to kill those things.

The Justice League of Gondwonaland, starring Green Algae, Wonder Remora, Superclam, and the dynamic duo of Flatworm & Roundworm.
posted by benzenedream at 1:37 PM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


> Oh yeah, and they're huge, venomous, difficult to control, and devour threatened species.
> posted by Mitrovarr at 3:18 PM on March 1 [+] [!]

The cool thing is that the echinoderms are our nearest relatives among the not-chordates. No, it couldn't be something pretty like butterflies or clever and friendly like octopi. Nope, radially symmetric and spiny 'r' us. So those radially symmetric shugg-thingies in "At the Mountains of Madness" (who were also huge, venomous, and difficult to control, and devoured whatever, including narrators)? Just the cousins from out of town, you get 'em at every extended family sit-down.
posted by jfuller at 2:33 PM on March 1, 2011


[E]chinoderms also have hard parts made of calcite unlike this guy.

How does that show up in a fossil (or not in this case)?
posted by cardboard at 2:38 PM on March 1, 2011


Favoured environment: attached to your face.
posted by panboi at 2:54 PM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Fossils for many of these things -- or their cousins -- are found at the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park. So you have an interesting moment, amid your pastoral hiking and your campfire, to stop and reflect that the awesome national park you're enjoying -- a world treasure, really -- used to be home to THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE.

"Let's put the tent right here. Right next to THE FOSSILIZED REMAINS OF THE GOAT WITH TEN THOUSAND YOUNG. And let's gather firewood, so we can make s'mores and USHER IN A MILLION YEARS OF DARKNESS."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:16 PM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Lobopodians are about the craziest looking critters that ever lived."

and

"They may have introduced the notion of jointed legs — the ones you have to pry off when eating at the Red Lobster."

*sigh* Really, NPR? I guess I should expect such infotainment from you , but c'mon. Science is interesting without such schoolboy-isms. (Sorry for the derail, I'm just grumpy I guess.)
posted by Ron Thanagar at 3:35 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Things like this remind me, repeatedly, that life on earth can be alien enough that the possible weirdness of real alien life is going to break our tiny little monkey brains. And likely eat our tiny little monkey brains, but likely derive no nutritional value from it.
posted by strixus at 3:39 PM on March 1, 2011



How does that show up in a fossil (or not in this case)?

It would be preserved with three dimensional structure where you could see tiny individual plates like in this Gogia (an early echinoderm which also happens to be from the Cambrian). The fossil here is an example of softbodied presservation and is preserved almost completely flattened. The original tissue was probably somewhat hard but made out of protein and not mineralized at all.

That's what makes this and other soft bodied fossils from the Cambrian so special. They represent the preservation of material that would normally never get preserved as the vast majority of the marine fossil represents only the mineralized parts (made of calcite or silica mostly) of organisms. Something about the oceans of the Cambrian allowed for preservation of the soft (or at least not mineral) tissues. This occurs worldwide with the most famous examples being the Burgess Shale in Canada and the Chengjiang fossils in China. I studied a "lesser" Burgess Shale-type deposit in Utah and there are many other such examples in formations all over the world. Without this unique preservation going on at this time we would never know about the lobopods, various worms, algae, chordates, jellyfish and many early arthropods that lived in this crucial part of the history of life.
posted by DanielDManiel at 3:45 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am less excited than I thought I would be at the idea of "walking cactus." I thought she had discovered some ambiguously plant-animal thing, something that perhaps photosynthesized all its energy but moved freely, reproduced sexually with others of its species, etc.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:50 PM on March 1, 2011


I hates it. I hates it very much.
posted by Amanojaku at 3:59 PM on March 1, 2011


The thread to pry the $5 Meta membership fee has finally arrived...

As TedW notes, Stephen Jay Gould's "Wonderful Life" addresses the so called "Cambrian Explosion" of weird and wonderful life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian Era as revealed in the fossils of the Burgess Shale, and more importantly, the mass extinction at the end of the Era that wiped out entire Classes of animals. The sobering conclusion is that it is just random luck that the ancient chordates that were our ancestors did not suffer the same fate as the Opabinia and Hallucigenia. Gould also goes into some of the methodology of how talented and patient scientists use camera obscura to determine 3 dimensional information from a nearly two dimensional fossil. "Wonderful Life" is required reading if this is of interest.

As far as graphic representation of these ancient critters, no one can beat Ray Troll . His book with Brad Matsen "Planet Ocean" is highly recommended to all you armchair paleontologists.
posted by ikkexile at 6:00 PM on March 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


The Creeping Devil Cactus actually exists. At 60 cm per year, it's not too much of a worry though.
posted by unliteral at 6:46 PM on March 1, 2011


would you like it steamed or deep fried ?

I would not like it steamed or fried.
I would not like it on the side.
I would not like it with some jam.
I do not like it, Sam I Am
posted by carping demon at 7:31 PM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


All these animals are extinct now

I know which line from this article I'm going to be repeating over and over while I try to sleep tonight.
posted by enn at 8:11 PM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fear not...these were extinct and 400 million old fossils when T. Rex roamed the earth.
posted by ikkexile at 9:22 PM on March 1, 2011


Another such souvenir, maybe: Scotoplanes globosa


..and souvenir decals are available!
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 12:47 AM on March 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lovecraftian existential horror jokes aside, I find myself honestly discomfited at the thought of one those things alive and walking. Not sure why it's affecting me that way.
posted by codswallop at 9:28 AM on March 2, 2011


codswallop, I think I know why; it's because OH MY GOD, LOOK AT IT!
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:38 AM on March 2, 2011


codswallop: I know, right? I'm kind of amazed at the strength of the atavistic reaction I had to that thought, which went something like OH GOD OH GOD FIND A BIG ROCK KILL IT KILL IT

I know a lot of people have already mentioned Lovecraft in this thread, but I just have to say, the timing of this is kind of weird for me, since I just started reading At the Mountains of Madness for the first time yesterday, which of course starts with scientists finding weird fossils. Then I read this first thing in the morning, and I'm like, "Really? Really, world? Why you gotta mess with me like that?"
posted by webmutant at 8:52 PM on March 2, 2011


The real insanity will start when they find a series of easy to interpret bas-reliefs explaining the things history and worldview.
posted by Artw at 8:58 AM on March 3, 2011


« Older "Sooner or later, nearly everyone on Haaretz gets...   |   Wisconistan Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post