As if horseshoe crabs weren’t weird enough, scientists just discovered one that looks like Darth Vader.
A 245-million-year-old fossil shows a strange invertebrate, with a head the shape of the letter “D” and a long tail. The scientists who discovered the fossil thought that the prehistoric creature looked kind of like a Star Wars villain, so they named it after the movie's most infamous one: Vaderlimulus.
While horseshoe crabs appeared on earth 470 million years ago, this one lived more recently, during the late Triassic, when the first dinosaurs were just evolving. Horseshoe crabs are actually still alive today, and that means they have survived five mass extinctions. You might even see them scuttling around beaches on the east coast of the U.S. or in Eastern Asia.
Vaderlimulus lived off the coast of Idaho, during a time when the surface of the earth had a significantly different shape and what is now the Gem State was on the coast of the supercontinent Pangea. German researchers published their study in the journal Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie.
Horseshoe crabs, whether ancient or modern, are in the subphylum Chelicerata, which means that their closest living relatives are spiders and scorpions. In common with spiders and crabs, they have exoskeletons, but horseshoe crabs are not technically crabs. Their crab-like legs are hidden under a wide shell with eyes on the top.
This body shape is not always an advantage. If they end up on their back, they can use their long tails to right themselves, but sometimes that can be hard. The National Sea Grant Program put together a brochure on how to flip a horseshoe crab to help it get back to doing horseshoe-crab things.
Despite having survived for hundreds of millions of years, through strange forms of evolution, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, and several mass extinctions, numbers of modern horseshoe crabs are depleting. They are easy to catch and are sometimes used in fertilizer. Meanwhile some scientists harvest their blood to make medicine. While the animals are usually returned to the ocean after donating blood, those individuals have a high mortality rate and low spawn rate.
The discovery of this Darth Vader-like crab, with its oversized helmet and small body, shows the diversity of horseshoe crabs. If they can survive humanity, maybe they will live another hundred thousand years after us.
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