The fossil, from southern China, has been so well preserved that individual nerves are visible, the first time this level of detail has been observed in a fossil of this age, researchers said. The findings are helping researchers understand how the nervous system of arthropods - creepy crawlies with jointed legs - evolved.

Finding any fossilised soft tissue is rare, but this particular find, by researchers in the UK, China and Germany, represents the most detailed example of a preserved nervous system yet discovered.

The animal, called Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis, lived during the Cambrian 'explosion', a period of rapid evolutionary development about half a billion years ago when most major animal groups first appear in the fossil record.

C kunmingensis belongs to a group of animals called fuxianhuiids, and was an early ancestor of modern arthropods - the diverse group that includes insects, spiders and crustaceans.

"This is a unique glimpse into what the ancestral nervous system looked like," said study co-author Dr Javier Ortega-Hernandez, of the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology.

"It's the most complete example of a central nervous system from the Cambrian period," said Ortega-Hernandez.

C kunmingensis looked like a sort of crustacean, with a broad, almost heart-shaped head shield, and a long body with pairs of legs of varying sizes.

Through careful preparation of the fossils, which involved chipping away the surrounding rock with a fine needle, the researchers were able to view not only the hard parts of the body, but fossilised soft tissue as well.


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