When Giant Scorpions Swarmed the Seas

When Giant Scorpions Swarmed the Seas

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Language: English

Type: Human

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Number of words: 1966

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We’d like to thank Audible for supporting PBS Some 400 million years ago, in the early Devonian Period, the world was a very different place. Sea levels were high, and the continents were surrounded by vast, shallow seas, full of exotic creatures like rugose corals, crinoids, and jawless fish. And in what’s now Utah, one such fish met an end that was as grim as it was typical. The jawless fish, known as Lechriaspis, was killed by three distinct puncture wounds to the head -- puncture wounds made by crushing claws. The culprit was an apex predator that dominated the seas of the late Silurian and early Devonian: the sea scorpion. Sea scorpions thrived for 200 million years, coming in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from Alkenopterus, which was about the size of a paper clip, to the terrifying Jaekelopterus, which was 2 and a half meters long! But in time, these able hunters would meet some stiff competition. In the Late Devonian, giant armored jawed fish -- the placoderms -- would come to dominate these seas and force other ocean-dwellers to adapt, flee, or perish.
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These formidable predators would give the period its nickname: The Age of Fish. And as a result of this competition, sea scorpions would eventually diverge into two distinct lineages, each with its own unique strategy for dealing with the rise of the fish. They developed a number of adaptations -- from those crushing claws that snagged the hapless Lechriapsis, to flattened tails for swimming, as well as primitive lungs and strange, filter-feeding appendages. And some of them adapted by getting so big that they still hold the record as the largest arthropods of all time. They would even make the giant, historic leap from the water onto dry land. But unlike their other arthropod relatives that we share the world with today, for the sea scorpions, that move would prove to be the beginning of the end. Scientists know “sea scorpions” by their proper, more accurate but also somewhat less cool name: eurypterids And eurypterids probably aren’t ancestral to the arachnids we know as scorpions today. Sea scorpions and true scorpions are actually sister clades that both belong to a Subphylum
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known as Chelicerata, an ancient group of arthropods that first appeared in the oceans of the Cambrian Period. By the time the Silurian Period rolled around, tens of millions of years later, the two clades had diverged, each adapting a different way of breathing that ultimately set them down very different evolutionary paths. In the lineage of true scorpions, external respiration organs called “book-gills” were adapted into internal “book-lungs”. These lungs allowed the ancestors of today’s arachnids to become some of the first animals ever to colonize land. Sea scorpions, meanwhile, retained their book-gills, which are similar to what horseshoe crabs use to breathe today. And this kept them dependent on water—mostly. But they also developed a second respiratory system, known as a “kiemenplatten”, which functioned as a rudimentary lung and allowed them to take short trips onto land. Because of these features, some researchers believe that kiemenplatten allowed sea scorpions to mate and lay their eggs on land, or even to develop an amphibious lifestyle. But, as history would show, this adaptation would prove to be a limitation, as well as
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an advantage. In 2015, the earliest-known eurypterid, Pentecopterus decorahensis, was discovered rocks in Iowa that date back 467 million years. It had compound eyes, a two-section body, and six pairs of appendages. The first pair, by the mouth, would have been used for feeding, while the other five were used for moving around. Sea scorpions would soon come to be defined by how they these appendages adapted, splitting off into two distinct suborders with two very different evolutionary strategies. The first suborder to appear was Stylonuria. And its first known member appears just nine million years after Pentecopterus, in what’s now Wales. This species was a humble little water monster just under 20 centimeters long, and it scuttled along on ten legs, scavenging for food at the bottom of the shallow seas. Like all of the Stylonurines that would follow, Brachyopterus used its appendages for walking and stuck to a strategy of scavenging and filter feeding on the seafloor, in order to
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stay out of the way of fish, which were on the rise. But, during the Late Ordovician, a second suborder of sea scorpion emerges in the fossil record — the Eurytperina. The earliest-known eurypterine is a little species dated to 445 million years ago, discovered in the shales of South Africa. And these sea scorpions had a pair of appendages that were more like paddles, which allowed them to swim, a lifestyle that put them in direct competition with jawless fish and cephalopods. The newfound mobility of this group allowed it to diversify throughout the Silurian, and fast, as they were able to colonize new areas and take advantage of new niches. Plus, by competing with fish and cephalopods, they put themselves under selective pressure, and launched an evolutionary arms race with other swimmers. This led to much greater diversity in this suborder, which is probably why 75% of all known sea scorpion species -- and more than 95% of all the specimens ever found -- belong to Eurypterina. But as the Silurian gave way to the Devonian, a dangerous new competitive pressure entered
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the seas — the armored, jawed fish known as the placoderms. So, after reaching their peak diversity at the very start of the Devonian Period, the number of Euryterine species begins to drop in the fossil record, likely because many simply couldn’t compete with this new powerhouse predator. But the eurypterines that did survive managed to stage a sort of evolutionary rally, getting bigger, faster, and stronger in the Devonian to cope with seas filled with placoderms that were doing the same. So, we probably have placoderms to thank for the nightmare fuel that followed, a family of giant eurypterines that persisted for nearly 40 million years. These are known as the pterygotids. They were some of the only sea scorpions to cross the open ocean, exploring the seas between the continents of Euramerica and Gondwana. And several aspects of their anatomy indicate that they were active, powerful predators. They had thin, light-weight exoskeletons that helped them move faster, and flattened tails called telsons that gave them extra swimming power. Their eyes faced forward and had thousands of lenses, giving them keen eyesight for spotting
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prey. And they caught that prey with mouth appendages called chelicerae that ended in large, raptor-like claws. These claws were so robust that they often preserved better than the thin exoskeleton, and sometimes they’re the only parts that remain in fossils of pterygotids. Many pterygotids reached over 1 meter in length, but the king of them all was Jaekelopterus — the largest arthropod that has ever lived, maxing out at 2.5 meters long. It was described from a claw found in Germany in 2007 that’s nearly half-meter long, with tooth-like serrations that are about the size of a tiger’s canine teeth! But despite their best efforts, these invertebrates couldn’t keep up with placoderms, and eurypterines lost over 50 percent of their diversity within the first 10 million years of the Devonian. By the end of the Devonian, all of the giant marine eurypterines had gone extinct. Only one swimming genus -- the tiny, widely dispersed Adelophthalmus -- remained. But while the dramatic rise and fall of Eurypterina had been happening out at sea, the slow and steady Stylonuria were still hanging on.
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In contrast to their cousins the eurypterines, the stylonurines remained relatively unaffected by the rise of the fish. While the eurypterines were busy competing with fish, stylonurines moved inland, to brackish and freshwater ecosystems where there were fewer placoderms and less competition. By the time of the Carboniferous Period, about 360 million years ago, Gondwana and Euramerica had come together, allowing the stylonurines to spread out over the new supercontinent. Now, the Carboniferous is most famous for giant arthropods like 2 meter long millipedes and griffenflies with wingspans larger than that of some birds. But if you were to hang around the muddy banks of a river, you might just spot the last of the giant sea scorpions — a big weirdo called Hibbertopterus. This was a very different sort of creature from the swimming, predators that had come before. It was basically a big, tank-like roomba, slowly combing the sediment at the bottoms and banks of swamps and rivers with spiny sweep-feeding appendages. A big trackway discovered in Carboniferous rock in Scotland has been attributed to Hibbertopterus.
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And these tracks suggest that, while it wasn’t as long as Jaekelopterus, it was probably heavier, with thicker legs to support it on land. Scientists don’t really know why hibbertopterus got so big, but the size increase was gradual, indicating that it might have been to better adapt to the species’ new freshwater home. That’s because chelicerates have blood that has a salinity similar to that of sea water. So a larger body size and thicker exoskeleton would have helped insulate hibbertopterus, to maintain its blood salinity in freshwater and even in the open air. Hibbertopterus died out in the Carboniferous, but other Hibbertopterids persisted for millions of years. The final eurypterid, Campylocephalus permianus, disappeared at the end of the Permian Period, during the biggest extinction event in Earth’s history. The end-Permian extinction, also called The Great Dying, was probably triggered by massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia that warmed the climate and killed off more than 96% of marine species and 70% of species on land.
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Campylocephalus was among the many casualties, and with its demise, the 210 million year age of eurypterids was brought to an end. While sea scorpions ultimately succumbed the evolutionary pressure of powerful new vertebrates and mass extinction events, for a big window of time, they were the most fearsome and diverse arthropods around. And they show us how different evolutionary paths can have very different outcomes. By laying low and avoiding competition, stylonurines stuck around millions of years longer, while eurypterines were far more diverse and plentiful at their peak. In the end, their undoing might have been their inability to fully colonize the next frontier -- dry land, where there was less competition and many more niches to fill. While the sea scorpions couldn’t make the transition, it was made successfully by the eurypterids’ sister-group: the arachnids. Maybe if they’d developed a way to leave the water sooner, sea scorpions would still be around. Today, just three classes of Chelicerata remain: On land, there are the arachnids, like spiders,
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ticks, and true scorpions. And in the seas there are the sea spiders and the primordial-looking horseshoe crabs -- living reminders of the watery origin of the chelicerates and the reign of the sea scorpions. We’d like to thank Audible for supporting PBS. Audible’s selection of audiobooks includes Audible Originals, audio titles created by storytellers from around the literary world. For example, The Genius Dialogues, an interview series where host Bob Garfield has conversations with individuals who have been awarded the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" Visit audible.com/eons OR text eons to 500 500 to learn more. Members own their books and can access them anytime. To learn more, visit audible.com/eons OR text eons to 500 500. Thanks for joining me today in the Konstantin Haase studio! And extra big thanks to our current Eontologists, Jake Hart, Jon Ivy, John Davison Ng and STEVE! If you’d like to join them and our other patrons in supporting what we do here, then
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