Wednesday, 14 April 2021


I was thinking this week about horseshoe crabs. David Appleton shared a lovely trackway earlier this week that may very well record the ancient route of one of these classic living fossils. 

Horseshoe crabs are marine and brackish water arthropods of the order Xiphosura — a slowly evolving, conservative taxa.

Much like (slow) Water Striders (Aquarius remigis), (relatively sluggish) Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) and (the current winner on really slow evolution) Elephant Sharks (Callorhinchus milii), these fellows have a long history in the fossil record with very few anatomical changes. But slow change provides loads of great information. It makes our new friend, Yunnanolimulus luoingensis, an especially interesting and excellent reference point for how this group evolved. We can examine their genome today and make comparisons all the way back to the Middle Triassic (with this new find) and other specimens from further back in the Ordovician.

The evolution of their exoskeleton is well-documented by fossils, but appendage and soft-tissue preservation are extremely rare. A new study analyzes details of the appendage and soft-tissue preservation in Yunnanolimulus luoingensis, a Middle Triassic (ca. 244 million years old) horseshoe crab from Yunnan Province, SW China. The remarkable anatomical preservation includes the chelicerae, five pairs of walking appendages, opisthosomal appendages with book gills, muscles, and fine setae permits comparison with extant horseshoe crabs.

The close anatomical similarity between the Middle Triassic horseshoe crabs and their recent analogues documents anatomical conservatism for over 240 million years, suggesting persistence of lifestyle.

The occurrence of Carcinoscorpius-type claspers on the first and second walking legs in male individuals of Y. luoingensis indicates that simple chelate claspers in males are plesiomorphic for horseshoe crabs, and the bulbous claspers in Tachypleus and Limulus are derived.

As an aside, if you hadn't seen an elephant shark before and were shown a photo, you'd likely say, "that's no freaking shark." You would be wrong, of course, but it would be a very clever observation. Callorhinchus milii look nothing like our Great White friends and they are not true sharks at all. Rather, they are ghost sharks that belong to the subclass Holocephali (chimaera), a group lovingly known as ratfish. They diverged from the shark lineage about 400 million years ago.

If you have a moment, do a search for Callorhinchus milii. The odd-looking fellow with the ironic name, kallos, which means beautiful in Greek, sports black blotches on a pale silver elongate body. And their special feature? It is the fishy equivalent of business in the front, party in the back, with a dangling trunk-like projection at the tip of their snout and well-developed rectal glands near the tail.

As another small point of interest with regards to horseshoe crabs, John McAllister collected several of these while working on his MSc to see if they had microstructures similar to trilobites (they do) and whether their cuticles were likewise calcified. He found no real calcification in their cuticles, in fact, he had a rather frustrating time getting anything measurable to dissolve in acid in his hunt for trace elements. 

Likewise, when looking at oxygen isotopes (16/18) to get a handle on water salinity and temperature, his contacts at the University of Waterloo had tons of fun getting anything at all to analyze. It made for some interesting findings. Sadly, for a number of reasons, he abandoned the work, but you can read his very interesting thesis here:

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.5,

Ref: Hu, Shixue & Zhang, Qiyue & Feldmann, Rodney & Benton, Michael & Schweitzer, Carrie & Huang, Jinyuan & Wen, Wen & Zhou, Changyong & Xie, Tao & Lü, Tao & Hong, Shuigen. (2017). Exceptional appendage and soft-tissue preservation in a Middle Triassic horseshoe crab from SW China. Scientific Reports. 7. 10.1038/s41598-017-13319-x.