When brachiopods have been featured on this site before, they have generally been representatives of the group known as the articulates. Today's subjects, the Acrotretidae, are instead members of the inarticulate brachiopods. Whereas the shells of articulate brachiopods have a hinge connecting the two valves, the shells of inarticulates do not. Instead, the valves of inarticulates are held together purely by the muscle and tissue around them. Fewer of the living brachiopods are inarticulates than articulates, and the inarticulates have been less diverse over most of brachiopod history.
The Acrotretidae are one of the earliest known families of brachiopods in the fossil record, first appearing in the early Cambrian. They were most diverse in the later Cambrian and early Ordovician, becoming less so in the later Ordovician. Only a single genus is known to have survived into the Silurian (Holmer & Popov 2000). This may be something of a pseudo-extinction: the 'Acrotretidae' as currently defined is probably ancestral to other families of the order Acrotretida that post-dated it. Nevertheless, the acrotretid lineage as a whole became extinct during the Devonian. At one time it was thought that some living brachiopod families (the craniids and discinids) might be descendants of the acrotretids; they are now believed to not be closely related.
The first feature that springs to attention about the acrotretids is that they were tiny. In general, their shells were only one or two millimetres across. The two valves of the shell were generally quite distinct for each other. The dorsal valve was generally low and convex, whereas the ventral valve was more or less a deep lop-sided cone. A rounded or oval opening was present in the ventral valve, usually just behind the point of the cone. In life, this would have been the opening through which extended the pedicel, the fleshy stalk that would have attached the stalk to its substrate. In brachiopods as small as acrotretids, the lophophore would have been fairly simple. Living forms with such simple lophophores open the shell wide when feeding and hold the lophophore filaments in a bell-shape; water containing food particles is drawn into the centre of the 'bell' and pushed out laterally through the filaments (Rudwick 1965).
An alternate model of the acrotretid anatomy was proposed by Chuang in the early 1970s. He compared acrotretids to the living inarticulate brachiopod Lingula, in which the pedicel does not pass through an opening in the ventral valve but instead is positioned in the centre rear of the animal, passing between the two valves. Chuang suggested that the acrotretid pedicel did likewise, and that the opening in the conical valve (which he interpreted as dorsal rather than ventral) was used to expel water after it was drawn over the lophophore. In support of this model, he conducted an experiment in which he drilled holes in a comparable position in the dorsal valve of living craniid brachiopods (demonstrating once again the concept that one can get away with anything so long as one is experimenting on 'lower lifeforms'), through which the brachiopods did indeed expel water. However, Chuang's model was dismissed by Rowell (1977) who identified a number of features confirmed that the perforate valve of acrotretids was indeed ventral. Lingula, despite being the best-known inarticulate in the modern brachiopod fauna, is a poor model for acrotretids due to its adaptations to an infaunal lifestyle buried in mud, including the modification of the pedicel into a supersized structure for digging and anchoring itself. As for Chuang's experimental observations, Rowell argued that the only thing they demonstrated was that "a system under pressure leaks when perforated", noting that "This relationship... applies equally to bicycle tires and brachiopods".
So how did acrotretids make their living? The impression I've gotten while researching this post is that they are common in deposits that would have been part of the outer continental shelf. In particular, they are often found in black shales, a rock type that was originally formed from anoxic mud. Obviously, few animals are actually able to make a living in an environment lacking oxygen. Some do, such as the "rat-tailed maggot" larvae of hoverflies that possess a long breathing tube with which to obtain air, but it is difficult to imagine acrotretids functioning in this way. The other animals found fossilised in black shales alongside acrotretids are planktonic and nektonic forms, such as graptolites or cephalopods. It is possible that many acrotretids were pseudoplankton, living attached to other organisms or objects floating in the water, such as floating seaweeds (not floating wood, though, because wood didn't exist yet). When the acrotretid died, or its host substrate disintegrated, then it would begin the long descent towards eventual fossilisation in the black muds deep below.
Bassett, M. G., L. E. Popov & L. E. Holmer. 2004. The oldest-known metazoan parasite? Journal of Paleontology 78 (6): 1214–1216.
Holmer, L., & L. Popov. 2000. Lingulata. In: Kaesler, R. L. (ed.) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt H. Brachiopoda, Revised vol. 2. Linguliformea, Craniiformea and Rhynchonelliformea (part) pp. 30–146. Geological Society of America: Boulder, and University of Kansas: Lawrence.
Rowell, A. J. 1977. Valve orientation and functional morphology of the foramen of some siphonotretacean and acrotretacean brachiopods. Lethaia 10: 43-50.
Rudwick, M. J. S. 1965. Ecology and paleoecology. In: Moore, R. C. (ed.) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt H. Brachiopoda vol. 1 pp. H199–H214. The Geological Society of America, Inc., and The University of Kansas Press.