Brittle stars looking like starfish: the first fossil record of the Astrophiuridae and a remarkable case of convergent evolution

Authors: Ben Thuy 1, Andy Dale 2, Lea Numberger-Thuy 1

Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum Luxembourg, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK

Source: Thuy, B., A. Gale, L. Numberger-Thuy, 2019. – Brittle stars looking like starfish: the first fossil record of the Astrophiuridae and a remarkable case of convergent evolution. PeerJ 7:e8008 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.8008

Abstract:The genus Astrophiura, which ranks among the most extraordinary of modern brittle stars, is the type genus of the recently resurrected family Astrophiuridae within the order Ophiurida. On account of its absurdly enlarged and strongly modified lateral arm plates, Astrophiura bears a closer resemblance to a pentagonal starfish than to a typical ophiuroid. Although molecular evidence suggests an ancient origin of the Astrophiuridae, dating back at least to the Early Jurassic, not a single fossil astrophiurid has been reported so far. Here, we describe dissociated lateral arm plates from the Campanian of Cringleford near Norwich, UK, and the Maastrichtian of Rügen, Germany (both Upper Cretaceous) with unambiguous astrophiurid affinities and assign these to a new species, Astrophiura markbeneckei. This represents the first fossil record of the family. In addition, the Rügen material included lateral arm plates that superficially resemble those of A. markbeneckei sp. nov. but differ in having spine articulations that are typical of the ophionereidoid family Amphilimnidae. We assign these plates to a new genus and species, Astrosombra rammsteinensis, an extinct amphilimnid with morphological modifications similar to those of Astrophiura, and thus representing a remarkable case of parallel evolution amongst brittle stars looking like starfish.

Astrophiura markbeneckei sp. nov., dissociated lateral arm plates from the upper lower Maastrichtian of Rügen, Germany (A–I) and from the upper Campanian of Cringleford near Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom (J, K).