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Modern optics in exceptionally preserved eyes of Early Cambrian arthropods from Australia



Despite the status of the eye as an “organ of extreme perfection”1, theory suggests that complex eyes can evolve very rapidly2. The fossil record has, until now, been inadequate in providing insight into the early evolution of eyes during the initial radiation of many animal groups known as the Cambrian explosion. This is surprising because Cambrian Burgess-Shale-type deposits are replete with exquisitely preserved animals, especially arthropods, that possess eyes3,4,5. However, with the exception of biomineralized trilobite eyes, virtually nothing is known about the details of their optical design. Here we report exceptionally preserved fossil eyes from the Early Cambrian (515 million years ago) Emu Bay Shale of South Australia, revealing that some of the earliest arthropods possessed highly advanced compound eyes, each with over 3,000 large ommatidial lenses and a specialized ‘bright zone’. These are the oldest non-biomineralized eyes known in such detail, with preservation quality exceeding that found in the Burgess Shale and Chengjiang deposits. Non-biomineralized eyes of similar complexity are otherwise unknown until about 85 million years later6,7. The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event8.

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Figure 1: Complex arthropod eyes from the Early Cambrian.
Figure 2: Cambrian arthropod eye SAM P43629, imaged using a Leica MZ16FA relief-map stereomicroscope.
Figure 3: Complexity of the Early Cambrian Emu Bay Shale eyes compared to eyes in other early Palaeozoic taxa.


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We thank P. and C. Buck for access to and assistance at the fossil site; N. Schroeder, M. Gemmell, R. Atkinson, M. A. Binnie and numerous others (Supplementary Table 3) for help with excavations and curatorial assistance; A. Netting, P. Hudson and Adelaide Microscopy for imaging; D. Birch and G. Brock for SEM-EDS analysis; A. Baonza and J. F. de Celis for discussions on arthropod eye development; R. Fortey and A. Parker for comments and the Australian Research Council (grant LP0774959), South Australian Museum, Spanish Ministry of Science (RYC2007-00090 and grant CGL2009-07073), Beach Energy and Sealink Pty Ltd for funding.

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All authors contributed directly to excavation and interpretation of fossil specimens, analysis and writing the paper. J.B.J., J.R.P. and M.S.Y.L. compiled comparative eye data, M.S.Y.L. conducted the stereomicroscopy and J.R.P. conducted the SEM-EDS analyses and digital photography.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Michael S. Y. Lee or John R. Paterson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The file contains Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary References and Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends. (PDF 1044 kb)

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Lee, M., Jago, J., García-Bellido, D. et al. Modern optics in exceptionally preserved eyes of Early Cambrian arthropods from Australia. Nature 474, 631–634 (2011).

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