The Cambrian Period, which occurred between 541 million and 485 million years ago, is an important point in evolutionary history where most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. Often called the "Cambrian explosion," fossils from this time provide glimpses into evolutionary history as the world's ecosystems were rapidly diversifying. Most fossils preserve the physical remains of organisms and their structure; however, geologists and paleobiologists at the University of Missouri recently collaborated to study fossils that reveal the behaviors of predators preserved as traces in ancient sediments. Thus, fossils from southeast Missouri are helping scientists unlock clues about the behaviors of these predators and their interactions with their prey. Evidence shows that these ancient organisms were behaviorally sophisticated, tailoring their attacks for effectiveness.
Trilobites are a fossil group of extinct marine invertebrate animals with external skeletons (see photo). As predators and scavengers, they flourished in the Cambrian period and were very prominent in the oceans that once were located in Missouri.
"The Saint Francois Mountains in southeastern Missouri have been the focus of geological research for decades and were once islands in the Cambrian ocean," said Kevin Shelton, professor of geological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. "I've worked as a geologist studying ore deposits in the area for more than 30 years. In that time, I've run across thousands of fossilized trilobite burrows. It is rare that we get to study the activities of 500 million-year-old organisms, yet the fossils in this locality are helping us determine how these organisms behaved."