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Digging up a Qingjiang fossil on a bank of the Danshui River, Hubei Province, China. Photo: Dong King Fu

On the banks of the Danshui River in China, scientists have unearthed a treasure trove of pristine fossil remnants from one of the most important periods in the history of life on Earth: the Cambrian explosion.

The big picture: The Cambrian explosion, which occurred a little more than 500 million years ago and lasted for about 40 million years, is the period when nearly all the major groups of multicellular life forms currently on Earth first appeared. It was a period of frenzied evolutionary development and biodiversity buildup, mainly in the world's oceans.

Why it matters: Understanding the creatures that came into existence at that time will improve scientists' knowledge of where animals alive today fit into the planet's evolutionary history.

What they found: The newly-analyzed Qingjiang fossil site in China has already yielded 4,351 specimens, and is expected to contain many more. So far, a large proportion of them — 53% — are new to science.

  • "The authors of this study are going to have a huge job on their hands just describing these alone," Allison Daley of the University of Lusanne, who was not involved in the new research, tells Axios.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, says it's possible the site contains more biodiversity than all other similar fossil sites from the Cambrian period.

"It is a huge surprise to find a new deposit of such incredible richness and with such a large proportion of species that are completely new to science."
— Robert Gaines of Pamona University

Like other Cambrian fossil sites, the majority of creatures here are soft-bodied — like fossil cnidarians, including jellyfish and sea anemones, both of which exist close to the base of the animal family tree, according to Gaines.

  • “These fossils are among the best fossils I’ve ever seen in my career," Daley says, noting that fossils at the Qingjiang site include soft tissues, eyes and internal organs.

The bevy of new life forms that first showed up during the Cambrian explosion include creatures that are related to modern animals, but would be utterly unrecognizable if you came across them today. Scientists have been trying to put each creature in its proper evolutionary context, and the new findings may help.

  • The site appears to have been located in an area that had environmental conditions that differ from some of the other Cambrian fossil deposit sites.

According to Gaines, the Qingjiang site shows that differences among fossil assemblages can be caused by environmental conditions that influence ecosystem structure.

One cool thing: Many of the Cambrian creatures were truly bizarre-looking.

  • Many had four or five eyes.
  • Some, like the Hallucigenia, had a head that closely resembled its tail, and were characterized by spikes sticking out from its back.
  • Most invertebrates that emerged during this period were small — though there were some that went against this trend, like the Anomalocaris, or "abnormal shrimp," which measured 3 feet in length.

The bottom line: Gaines says a central lesson from the Cambrian explosion is that it takes a rare combination of ingredients to produce a tremendous diversity of life forms, and that once it exists, such biodiversity should be preserved.

  • "It also reminds us of our deep kinship to all living animals," he said.

Go deeper

32 mins ago - World

Poland showdown is EU's Jan. 6 moment, top official says

Didier Reynders. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Poland and Hungary have forced a moment of reflection on the European Union — similar to the one in the U.S. after the Jan. 6 insurrection, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told Axios.

What he's saying: "During many years, we have had in our minds that it was granted that if you are a member of the EU, of course you apply the rule of law; you have full respect for democracy, fundamental rights and so on — maybe with some concerns but with a real intention to adapt your legislation to be in full compliance [with EU law]," Reynders said.

The E-commerce shopping spree

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Retailers have gotten really good at selling stuff online. So much so, investors want them to separate from the business units that do just that.

Why it matters: Spinning off these crown jewels may jeopardize both the physical and e-commerce sides of the companies in the long run by breaking the benefits of hybrid operations, analysts say.

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U.S. envoy to visit Sudan as "most dangerous" crisis intensifies

The sit-in in Khartoum. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty

U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman will visit Khartoum this week amid what Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has called the “worst and most dangerous" crisis of Sudan’s transition to democracy, two sources with direct knowledge tell Axios.

Driving the news: Roughly 2,000-3,000 people had joined a sit-in in Khartoum as of this afternoon, per Reuters, after protesters massed over the weekend to call on the military to bring down the government. The protests came just four weeks after a failed military coup.