Embryology in Deep Time

  • Philip C. J. DonoghueEmail author
  • John A. Cunningham
  • Xi-Ping Dong
  • Stefan Bengtson


For anyone who has cared for animal embryos, it beggars belief that these squishy cellular aggregates could be fossilised. Hence, with hindsight, it is possible to empathise with palaeontologists who found such fossils and, in their naming of Olivooides, Pseudooides, etc., drew attention to their likeness to animal eggs and embryos but without going so far as to propose such an interpretation. However, in 1994, Zhang Xi-guang and Brian Pratt described microscopic balls of calcium phosphate from Cambrian rocks of China, one or two of which preserved polygonal borders that resembled blastomeres on the surface of an early cleaving animal embryo. In retrospect, these fossils are far from remarkable, some of them may not be fossils at all, and it is not as if anyone ever conceived Cambrian animals as having lacked an embryology. But Zhang Xi-guang and Brian Pratt dared the scientific world, not least their fellow palaeontologists, to believe that the fragile embryonic stages of invertebrate animals could be fossilised, that there was a fossil record of animal embryology, that this record hailed from the interval of time in which animal body plans were first established, and that it had been awaiting discovery in the rocks, for want of looking. The proof of this concept came a few years later, when phosphatised Cambrian fossils from China and Siberia were shown to display indisputable features of animal embryonic morphologies. In the case of Olivooides, a series of developmental stages from cleavage to morphogenesis through hatching and juvenile growth could be tentatively identified; in Markuelia, the coiled-up body of an annulated worm-like animal could be clearly seen within its fertilisation envelope.


Fossil Record Lower Cambrian Internal Anatomy Doushantuo Formation Early Cleavage Stage 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We would like to thank the TOMCAT beamline scientists at the Swiss Light Source, Paul Scherrer Institut, Marco Stampanoni, Federica Marone, and Julie Fife, and the researchers at Beijing, Bristol, and Stockholm who have assisted in our research into fossil embryos over the years: Chen Fang, Cheng Gong, Duan Baichuan, Peng Fan, Zhi-kun Gai, Sam Giles, Neil Gostling, Jenny Greenwood, Guo Wei, Sandy Hetherington, Therese Huldtgren, David Jones, Joe Keating, Liu Jie, Liu Zheng, Duncan Murdock, Maria Pawlowska, Martin Rücklin, Ceri-Wynn Thomas, Zhao Yue, Chongyu Yin, and Zhang Huaqiao. We would also like to thank our colleagues with whom we have enjoyed fruitful discussions on embryology, fossilisation, and embryo fossils over the years. Finally, we thank Andreas Wanninger for inviting us to contribute to this wonderful and insightful volume on comparative embryology of invertebrates.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Wien 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip C. J. Donoghue
    • 1
    Email author
  • John A. Cunningham
    • 1
  • Xi-Ping Dong
    • 2
  • Stefan Bengtson
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Earth SciencesLife Sciences Building, University of BristolBristolUK
  2. 2.School of Earth and Space SciencesPeking UniversityBeijingChina
  3. 3.Department of PalaeobiologyNordic Center for Earth Evolution, Swedish Museum of Natural HistoryStockholmSweden

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