A tiny arthropod from 430 million years ago dubbed "The Kite Runner" had a novel way of hauling around its young: It stashed them in individual capsules tethered to its body, like so many kites at the ends of pieces of string.
That's what a team of researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom found when they studied the fossil of an ancient arthropod named Aquilonifer spinosus, a creature not even half of an inch long that would have made its living on the sea floor alongside the sponges, snails, worms and other aquatic neighbors of its day.
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The researchers described the many-tethered parent as having no eyes, its head covered by a shield-like apparatus.
Thanks to virtual reconstruction techniques, the scientists were able to determine that 10 juveniles were tethered to the fossil, in varying stages of development.
The pouches -- or "kites," to continue the analogy -- holding the juveniles were attached to the adult by thin, flexible threads. The pouches themselves looked like "flattened lemons," the scientists said.
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"Modern crustaceans employ a variety of strategies to protect their eggs and embryos from predators: attaching them to the limbs, holding them under the carapace, or enclosing them within a special pouch until they are old enough to be released," said the study's lead author Derek Briggs, of Yale University, in a statement. "But this example is unique."
Briggs and his colleagues from Oxford, the University of Leicester, and Imperial College London, ruled out any chance the juveniles were instead parasites attached to a convenient host, noting that their method of attachment would not have been very good for stealing nutrients.
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The team named the fossil "kite runner" because the creature's tethered kites reminded the scientists of the 2003 novel "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini.
"As the parent moved around, the juveniles would have looked like decorations or kites attached to it," said Briggs. "It shows that arthropods evolved a variety of brooding strategies beyond those around today. Perhaps this strategy was less successful and became extinct."
Detailed findings on the new creature have just been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.