|Fossil specimen (holotype) on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.|
Opabinia regalis is an extinct, stem group arthropod found in the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale Lagerstätte (505 million years ago) of British Columbia. Opabinia was a soft-bodied animal, measuring up to 7 cm in body length, and its segmented trunk had flaps along the sides and a fan-shaped tail. The head shows unusual features: five eyes, a mouth under the head and facing backwards, and a clawed proboscis that probably passed food to the mouth. Opabinia probably lived on the seafloor, using the proboscis to seek out small, soft food. Fewer than twenty good specimens have been described; 3 specimens of Opabinia are known from the Greater Phyllopod bed, where they constitute less than 0.1% of the community.
When the first thorough examination of Opabinia in 1975 revealed its unusual features, it was thought to be unrelated to any known phylum, or perhaps a relative of arthropod and annelid ancestors. However, later studies since late 1990s consistently support its affinity as a member of basal arthropods, alongside the closely related radiodonts (Anomalocaris and relatives) and gilled lobopodians (Kerygmachela and Pambdelurion).
In the 1970s, there was an ongoing debate about whether multi-celled animals appeared suddenly during the Early Cambrian, in an event called the Cambrian explosion, or had arisen earlier but without leaving fossils. At first Opabinia was regarded as strong evidence for the "explosive" hypothesis. Later the discovery of a whole series of similar lobopodian animals, some with closer resemblances to arthropods, and the development of the idea of stem groups suggested that the Early Cambrian was a time of relatively fast evolution, but one that could be understood without assuming any unique evolutionary processes.
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