These lovelies swam by moving their bodies in a series of zigzag curves similar to the movement of eels, all the while filtering particles from the water.
Although primitive, Pikaia shows the essential prerequisites for vertebrates. When alive, Pikaia was a compressed, leaf-shaped animal with an expanded tail fin; the flattened body is divided into pairs of segmented muscle blocks, seen as faint vertical lines.
The muscles lie on either side of a flexible structure resembling a rod that runs from the tip of the head to the tip of the tail. It swam by throwing its body into a series of S-shaped undulating movements that mimicked the movement of eels. Fish inherited this same swimming movement, but they generally have stiffer backbones so it does not quite have the same visual effect.
Pikaia was likely a slow swimmer since it lacked the fast-twitch fibres that we associate with rapid swimming in modern chordates. Still, even that form of movement in the Middle Cambrian is impressive in terms of mobility and design.
Conway Morris and Caron (2012) published an exhaustive description based on more than one hundred known fossil specimens. Through their deeper look at this primitive marine mystery, they discovered new and unexpected characteristics that they recognized as primitive features of the first chordate animals. On the basis of these findings, they constructed a new scenario for chordate evolution.
Subsequently, Mallatt and Holland reconsidered Conway Morris and Caron's description and concluded that many of the newly recognized characters are unique, already-divergent specializations that would not be helpful for establishing Pikaia as a basal chordate.