The Ediacaran biota has been touted as one of the great mysteries of palaeontology. Comprising the latest part of the Precambrian era, the Ediacaran is generally believed to have given us the earliest known animal fossils. However, palaeontologists have disagreed on just how the Ediacaran fossils relate to modern animals (see McCall 2006 for an exhaustively detailed review). Some see the Ediacarans as including the ancestors of groups that remain with us today: jellyfish, corals, comb jellies, sponges. Others see Ediacarans as outside the modern lineages: ancient animal groups that were swept aside by more modern animals at the beginning of the Cambrian. And some have even questioned whether the Ediacarans were even animals at all, suggesting links instead to fungi or Foraminifera, or even that they were an entirely independent lineage unrelated to any modern multicellular organisms.
In 1996, Benjamin Waggoner proposed the name 'Cephalata' for a clade uniting the arthropods with two groups of Ediacaran organisms: the Sprigginidae and the Vendiamorpha. These are among the most undeniably animal-like of the Ediacarans. The sprigginids (including Spriggina shown at the top of the post) have an undivided 'head' followed by a long segmented body. The vendiamorphs are shield-like organisms that also show evidence for segment-like divisions behind the 'head', such as branching internal structures that may represent side-branches of an internal gut.
It is difficult to see these taxa as anything other than mobile animals. One supporter of non-animalian affinities for the Ediacarans, Adolf Seilacher, did suggest that Spriggina was a sessile organism, maintaining that the 'head' was in fact a holdfast while the 'body' extended upwards like the frond of a sea pen (I have seen a memorable reconstruction, though unfortunately I can't recall where, showing an individual of mobile Spriggina crawling past a cluster of sessile Spriggina). However, the numerous Spriggina specimens that have been found in Australia and Russia are invariably preserved lying flat, while sessile organisms from the same locations are preserved with the holdfast below the level of the body. Vendiamorphs, on the other hand, are simply not shaped in a way that allows them to be seen as anything other than lying flat. An immobile sprigginid or vendiamorph lying flat below the water would have been vulnerable to being buried by sediment, without any way of digging itself back out.
But if sprigginids and vendiamorphs were definitely animals, what kind of animals were they? It is at this point that things get a bit more vague. Their segmented appearance immediately suggests arthropods (and onychophorans) or annelids, but there is not a great deal to suggest one or the other. The differentiated head of sprigginids suggests the head of an arthropod, while vendiamorphs have been compared to the larvae of arthropods such as trilobites. However, it is unclear whether the Ediacaran taxa possessed anything like the limbs of arthropods and related taxa. The segments of sprigginids may be separated at the edges, and some have argued that folds in vendiamorph fossils are suggestive of limbs underneath a dorsal shield, but there is nothing that one would call unequivocal. Lateral outgrowths of sprigginids may correlate to annelid parapodia instead of arthropod limbs, and folds in the bodies of vendiamorphs may be nothing more than that. We recognise relationships between fossil and extant animals on the basis of whether they have features in common, but our assessment of what features they have may be coloured by what features we expect to see.
Some authors have drawn attention to a feature of both vendiamorphs and sprigginids that is visible in the image of Vendia above: their so-called 'glide reflectional symmetry'. Though their bodies appear segmented, the segments do not go straight across the body as one might expect. Instead, the left and right sides of the body are slightly offset from each other. For this reason, some authors have claimed that these animals do not show true bilateral symmetry and hence argued for placing them outside the Bilateria crown group, along its stem. However, others have suggested that the offset between sides may be an artefact of preservation. Even if it was indeed a feature of the living animal, glide reflectional symmetry may not necessarily force the sprigginids outside the Bilateria: a number of living bilaterians also show a certain degree of symmetry offset either as adults or during development, including basal chordates (Waggoner 1996).
During the period of the Cambrian, directly after the Ediacaran, we have access to beautifully preserved fossil deposits that have allowed us to characterise many animals from that period in exquisite detail. No such fossils exist for the Ediacaran; instead, Ediacaran animals are mostly preserved in coarse sediments that preserve only relatively broad features of the fauna. This can turn the Ediacarans into tantalising shadows, and what we see in them can say more about our assumptions than the animals themselves.
Ivantsov, A. Yu. 2004. New Proarticulata from the Vendian of the Arkhangel’sk region. Paleontologicheskii Zhurnal 2004 (3): 21–26 (transl. Paleontological Journal 38 (3): 247–253.
McCall, G. J. H. 2006. The Vendian (Ediacaran) in the geological record: enigmas in geology's prelude to the Cambrian explosion. Earth-Science Reviews 77: 1-229.
Waggoner, B. M. 1996. Phylogenetic hypotheses of the relationships of arthropods to Precambrian and Cambrian problematic fossil taxa. Systematic Biology 45 (2): 190-222.