Enigmatic Fossil From 450 Million Years Ago and Shaped Like a Tiny Ice Cream Cone Found in Pennsylvania

Scientists found the fossil of a previously unknown, ancient, soft-bodied creature in the rocks of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania. Whatever creature it once was likely lived about 450 million years ago, during an explosive expansion of ocean life. And it looked like a tiny ice cream cone. 

The paleontologists who found the fossil have no idea what it was. They know it lived alongside ancient plankton during the Ordovician era, several hundred million years ago. But most of the fossils from that era have hard outer shells. As a result, almost everything scientists know about life on Earth at this time is based on fossils of creatures that had skeletons, explained Jan Zalasiewicz, a paleontologist at the University of Leicester's School of Geography, Geology and the Environment.

"Was this creature an important but usually unpreserved part of ocean life, or just a bit player among the Ordovician animal communities? It is a new puzzle for palaeontologists," said Zalasiewicz in a statement.

The researchers describe the fossil in a paper published Tuesday in Palaios. It's shaped like an ice cream cone, with the main body as the scoop, as the researchers describe in the press statement. Some of the soft pieces of the creature are still preserved in the fossil.

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rare450milli The Hummelstown Fossils: A) typical specimen reconstruction showing body mass (white) poking out of the 'spindle'-shaped cone (patterned); B) typical fossil specimen with body mass (with at least one spike) and 'spindle'-shaped cone; C) surface of rock slab showing numerous Hummelstown fossils. University of Leicester

The team hopes that the fossil will yield some clues about what types of non-skeleton-bearing creatures existed during this time period. "The ancient world of the Ordovician, some 450 million years ago, was one of a huge expansion of life in the seas of our planet," said Zalasiewicz in a statement. 

The fossil was found in the Appalachian Mountains near Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. Today, this landscape is one of serene mountaintops, but the region was once covered in water. The Ordovician period, from which the fossil likely came from, lasted 45 million years, starting 488 million years ago and ending 443 million years ago. The time period is also characterized by a burst of diverse sea creatures known as trilobites and conodonts. Although now extinct, these creatures are the ancestors of many modern-day animals, such as spiders and crabs.  

The preservation was also remarkable. Despite the fact that the rocks have been pressured and moved over hundreds of millions of years, some formerly living soft matter was still present. "This enigmatic organism has major implications for how we look for well-preserved fossils," said Mike Meyer, of the Carnegie Institute of Science, in the statement. 

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This discovery is the first time that scientists have found evidence of this creature. It's not clear yet whether it lay hidden for so long because its soft body made it difficult to be preserved or if it was long lost because its appearance on Earth was just a brief one. The team hopes this formerly soft life form will help answer some hard questions. 

“It is a new puzzle for paleontologists," said Zalasiewicz.

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