Hymenocarines were early arthropods with bivalved carapaces and mandibles, forming the bulk of the first mandibulates (represented today by myriapods, crustaceans and insects) (Aria and Caron 2017; Vannier et al. 2018). In many hymenocarines, including Nereocaris, determining the exact number and types of appendages in their head remains difficult, which hinders a detailed understanding of the evolutionary relationships inside this group. Nereocaris most probably belongs to the family Odaraiidae, a group of hymenocarines with highly multisegmented bodies, reduced or absent antennae and highly multisegmented legs.
Nereocaris – After “Nereus”, the Greek titan with a fish-like tail and the Latin caris, meaning “crab” or “shrimp”, and
exilis – from the Latin exilis, meaning “slender”.
Tulip Beds (S7) (N. exilis) and the Collins Quarry (N. briggsi).
The first description of Nereocaris exilis was published in 2012 based on specimens from the Tulip Beds site in Mount Stephen (Yoho National Park). Two years later, Nereocaris briggsi was described based on specimens from the Collins Quarry in Mount Stephen (Legg and Caron 2014). Nereocaris was originally described with a median eye protruding from a single eye peduncle located between the lateral eyes (Legg et al. 2012; Legg and Caron 2014). This structure was later reinterpreted as one of a pair of frontal filaments; short unsegmented limb-like structures with a sensorial function (Izquierdo-López and Caron 2022). Similarly, the tail fan of Nereocaris exilis was initially interpreted as having six pairs of lateral caudal rami (termed telson processes in the original study) and one medial telson process. This structure was later reinterpreted as two pairs of three-partite caudal rami borne by the terminal segment (“te” in Izquierdo-López and Caron, 2022), and was also reconstructed as such for N. briggsi (Izquierdo-López and Caron 2022). The discovery of Nereocaris and the phylogenetic analyses adjunct to the publication have been key to the interpretation of hymenocarines as earliest euarthropods (Legg et al. 2013; Fu et al. 2022) (or ‘upper stem-euarthropods’ based on Ortega-Hernández 2014). The discovery of mandibles in several hymenocarines (Aria and Caron 2017; Vannier et al. 2018; Zhai et al. 2019) has prompted the reinterpretation of this group as mandibulates, although the mandibulates affinities of Nereocaris and other odaraiids remain unclear pending clearer resolution of their head appendages.
The carapace of Nereocaris has a dome-like shape, compressed laterally, which becomes progressively wider towards the back of the animal. The top of the carapace bears a dorsal crest (keel) that runs across its entire length and extends posteriorly into a small process. The carapace is truncated anteriorly, and each valve extends towards the ventral side, terminating into an anterior hook. The carapace valves extend beyond the length of the legs, and in N. briggsi extend across the ventral side, similar to Odaraia alata. The head bears one pair of short pedunculate eyes and one pair of thin and small, unsegmented appendages (frontal filaments). Antennulae appear to be absent, and further cephalic specializations are unknown from the material available. The body of Nereocaris is highly multisegmented, reaching more than 90 segments in N. exilis. The trunk is subdivided into a thoracic region with limbs and a long limbless abdomen. Limbs are short, subdivided into two branches (biramous): a walking leg (endopod) and a seemingly paddle-like flap (exopod). Based on N. briggsi, the walking legs are probably subdivided into 14 or similar segments (podomeres). The exact morphology and size of the exopods is not well-preserved, but darker areas close to the legs’ base could indicate their approximate shape and length. The terminal segment is distinctly larger than the preceding segments and extends into a blunt process towards the posterior side of the animal (the “mtp” in Legg & Caron, 2014). This last segment bears one pair of caudal rami, each being partly subdivided into three smaller segments (tripartite). Each segment bears one spine on its outer edge.
Nereocaris exilis is rare, only known from three specimens from the same locality. Nereocaris briggsi is highly abundant in its locality, with over 190 specimens known.
The limbs of Nereocaris exilis do not extend beyond the carapace ventral margin, indicating that they were not used for crawling. By contrast, the limbs of Nereocaris briggsi protrude from the carapace, but these were considered ill-suited to walk on the benthos (Legg and Caron 2014). For this reason, Nereocaris was reconstructed as a nektonic species, using its long abdomen as a means of propulsion (Legg et al. 2012; Perrier et al. 2015). N. exilis could have been a suspension-feeder, based on the lack of any raptorial or similar predatory limbs, but this possibility was questioned based on the lack of endites or setae on the limbs (Legg et al. 2012), which are widely used by extant filter-feeding crustaceans (Riisgård and Larsen 2010). A straight gut in N. briggsi, a simple tube filled with sediment may support the presence of a suspension or deposit feeding lifestyle, in which the animal would have consumed mud containing organic material (Legg and Caron 2014). It was also hypothesized that multiple odaraiids (Izquierdo-López and Caron 2022), most prominently Fibulacaris (Izquierdo-López and Caron 2019), could have swum upside-down, thus facilitating the capture of particles by the carapace. Whether Nereocaris could have adopted such behaviour remains uncertain.