Cephalopoda (stem group molluscs)
Nectocaris is regarded as an early stem-group mollusc close to the cephalopods. This stem-group also includes Vetustovermis from the Middle Cambrian Emu Bay Shale of Australia, and the Lower Cambrian Petalilium from the Chengjiang deposit in China (Smith and Caron, 2010).
Nectocaris – from the Greek nekto, “swimming,” and the Latin caris, “shrimp,” based on its original interpretation as an arthropod.
pteryx – from the Greek pteryx, “fins,” in reference to the presence of fins.
Holotype – USNM 198667 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Burgess Shale and vicinity: none.
Other deposits: none.
Middle Cambrian, Bathyuriscus-Elrathina Zone (approximately 505 million years ago).
The Walcott, Raymond and Collins Quarries on Fossil Ridge.
Brief history of research:
As with Odontogriphus, another Burgess Shale animal related to molluscs, Walcott collected the first specimen of Nectocaris between 1909 and 1924. The fossil was photographed by Walcott, and its print sat with the unidentified specimen in the Smithsonian collections until noticed and described by Simon Conway Morris in 1976. Due to the lateral compression of the fossil, his resulting reconstruction was laterally-oriented. The funnel, bent back over the front, resembled the head-shield of an arthropod, and yet the fin, folded along the top of the organism, looked much like the ray-bearing dorsal fin of a chordate. A chordate affinity was further suggested by the myomere-like appearance of the bars, and although Conway Morris did not offer a firm diagnosis, Simonetta (1988) promoted a chordate status (Insom et al., 1995).
Meanwhile, Glaessner had described Vetustovermis, based on an ill-preserved specimen from Australia's Emu Bay Shale, and because of its segmented appearance he suggested an affinity with annelid worms (Glaessner, 1979). Other workers noted the similarity of some Chengjiang fossils to this specimen and described them as slug-like relatives of the molluscs (Chen et al., 2005). During this period, the Royal Ontario Museum had been collecting similar fossils, which Desmond Collins recognized as representatives of Nectocaris. These were eventually described as stem-group cephalopods (Smith and Caron, 2010). The relationships among members of this clade are difficult to determine, and it may require further fossil finds to establish their diversity and range. The absence of a shell in Nectocaris indicates that cephalopods, which were previously thought to have evolved later in the Cambrian from snail-like monoplacophorans, did not require a buoyant shell to start swimming, but derived their shell independently of other mollusc lineages.
The body of Nectocaris is kite-shaped and can reach up to 72 mm in length, including two flexible tentacles that extend forwards from the head, which also bears a pair of camera-type eyes on short stalks. A long, nozzle-like funnel originates under the base of the head. The main body has wide lateral fins with transverse bars; a large axial cavity contains paired gills.
Nectocaris is known from 90 specimens on Fossil Ridge, mostly from the Collins Quarry; it is rare or absent at most other Burgess Shale localities. Only two specimens, including the holotype, have been found in the Walcott Quarry.
A free-swimming predator or scavenger, Nectocaris would have fed on small prey items with its prehensile tentacles in a similar fashion to squid today. Its primary mode of propulsion would have been in the flexing of its fins; it may have supplemented this by squirting water from its funnel. The funnel was also used to inhale and exhale water, which entered the animal's body cavity to oxygenate the large internal gills.