This rare, brainless sea creature could hold the secrets to vertebrate evolution

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You're looking at a rare, fish-like creature known to marine scientists as amphioxus. Widely known for being not only faceless, but brainless, these small, elusive creatures are some of the most bizarre ocean-dwellers we've ever discovered.

In place of a brain, amphioxus instead relies on a nerve cord that extends along the length of its body and swells just slightly in the region of its head where higher-order chordates — like us — keep their brains.


This particular amphioxus (scientists have documented over 20 different species) was recently photographed off the coast of Scotland, where researchers spent 2011 conducting a number of marine surveys geared toward investigating the biodiversity of Scotland's seas. It is one of several rare species uncovered over the course of the surveys.

Amphioxus is particularly interesting because of what it can teach us about the origins of vertebrates (though they possess a nerve cord like us, amphioxi lack a spinal column). Believed to have split from vertebrates over 500 million years ago, amphioxus are regarded as something of an anachronism, a modern-day model of the first wave of animals to evolve backbones that can teach us about the evolution of more complex organisms.


Of course, it's a lot easier to learn from animals like amphioxus when they're actually around for us to conduct research on — when an organism like this becomes extinct, we lose out on untold repositories of scientific information.

"Scotland's seas really are a fantastic asset," said Davies. "The findings from these surveys will help us to manage them sustainably and ensure future generations can also enjoy the benefits of a healthy and diverse marine environment." []