A 305-million-year-old fossil found in eastern France revealed that ancient arachnids, specifically the harvestman or "daddy longlegs," once had four eyes instead of today's two.
"Terrestrial arthropods like harvestmen have a sparse fossil record because their exoskeletons don’t preserve well," said Prashant Sharma, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, which wrote a blog post about their findings
. "As a result, some fundamental questions in the evolutionary history of these organisms remain unresolved. This exceptional fossil has given us a rare and detailed look at the anatomy of harvestmen that lived hundreds of millions of years ago."
Sharma is one of the lead authors of a study conducted by the New York museum and the UK's University of Manchester and published in the journal Current Biology this week.
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"Hastocularis argus," the ancient species identified by the researchers, had extra 'lateral' eyes on the side of its body in addition to the 'median' eyes near the middle of the body that today's daddy longlegs still maintain.
The team of researchers used high-resolution X-ray to examine the arachnid, revealing the minute detailing of the eyes. The well preserved nature of the fossil was also extremely valuable for the examination.
"Fossils preserved in three dimensions are quite rare," said Russell Garwood, a research fellow at the University of Manchester. "This is especially true of harvestmen. Our X-ray techniques have allowed us to reveal this fossil in more detail than we would have dreamed possible two decades ago."
Further confirming lineage of the fossil specimen and today's daddy longlegs, the researchers examined the genes of the modern arachnids, finding that they briefly express the lateral eyes in the embryonic stage, but don't develop into the birth phase.
Harvestmen are often called spiders, however they technically are not. They are more closely related to other arachnids like scorpions, ticks and mites — all defined by their eight legs.
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