Behold, the Ancient Ice Cream Cone of the Sea

Scientists have puzzled over the taxonomy of the Hyolith for 175 years. Persistence and organic tissue finds have finally won the day.

NPR reports that a new study in the science journal Nature asserts that the mysterious Hyolith, which lived during the Cambrian period, have been hiding identifying information from researchers for years. It was recently discovered that the cone-like animal possessed “short tentacles around a centrally located mouth, tucked between its two shells.”

The tusks were discovered in specimens of a specific kind of Hyolith called Haplophrentis. According to The New York Times, most fossils studied by paleontologists consist of only the hard parts of the animal, like teeth, shells and bones. This particular specimen had what NPR describes as “exceptionally preserved soft tissues,” which is also what I call my wine gut.


The discovery led scientists to conclude that the Hyolith is not a mollusk or a snail or a squid, or any of the other species it has been misidentified as since its discovery, but from a group called lophophorates. The closest modern day equivalent would be a brachiopod which kind of looks like a clam. So, it’s like a seashell thingy with a hinge at the butt end.

The discovery was made by a team at the University of Toronto led by a 20-year-old undergraduate student named Joseph Moysiuk, according to He explained to them the significance of those squishy tisshies:

“Our most important and surprising discovery is the hyolith feeding structure, which is a row of flexible tentacles extending away from the mouth, contained within the cavity between the lower conical shell and upper cap-like shell,” said Moysiuk. “Only one group of living animals - the brachiopods - has a comparable feeding structure enclosed by a pair of valves. This finding demonstrates that brachiopods, and not molluscs, are the closest surviving relatives of hyoliths.

“It suggests that these hyoliths fed on organic material suspended in water as living brachiopods do today, sweeping food into their mouths with their tentacles,” Moysiuk said.


Though the Hyolith has not lived long enough to enjoy its newfound fame, the discovery contributes to the understanding of the Cambrian Explosion, a time when evolution on earth went into hyperdrive, creating all sorts of very similar yet wildly different shelled creatures. It’s very cool to know more about the organism the Flintstones most commonly used at their Ample Hills Creamery.

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`


Psychopomps: Sleep and Death

I’m going to be honest, I’m 50% excited about these new Burgess Shale fossils and the fact that we have (possibly) solved such a long-standing mystery in invertebrate paleontology, and 50% jealous that a 20 year old just got lead author in Nature.