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Image Gallery: A Tiny Creature with Bizarre Features

Hidden Gem

vorticella-like animal, or bell animal, sealed inside a leech cocoon

(Image credit: Benjamin Bomfleur)

About 200 million years ago, a leech released a slimy mucous cocoon that unwittingly encased and trapped a bizarre animal with a springy tail, preserving it for eternity, or until researchers discovered the teardrop-shape creature in Antarctica recently.

Fast Contractor

vorticella-like animal, or bell animal, sealed inside a leech cocoon

(Image credit: Benjamin Bomfleur)

The critter most closely resembled the genus Vorticella, more specifically, Vorticella campanula, whose rapidly contracting stalk was found to be one of the world's fastest cellular engines.

They're Eukaryotes!

vorticella-like animal, or bell animal, sealed inside a leech cocoon

(Image credit: Benjamin Bomfleur)

Teensy bell animals like this one, Vorticella, also sport a nucleus inside the main body.

Leech Cocoon

leech cocoon

(Image credit: Hans Kerp)

The bell animal was trapped inside a leech cocoon, much like this one.

Lush Antarctica?

image of the Transantarctic Mountain Range

(Image credit: Antiquity journal, Benjamin Bomfleur)

The cocoon was found in the Timber Peak section of the Transantarctic Mountain Range. When the bell animal was alive, this area would have been a dense rain forest, as Earth was much warmer back then.

Bell Animal

vorticella-like animal, or bell animal, sealed inside a leech cocoon

(Image credit: Benjamin Bomfleur)

The Triassic Vorticella-like fossil (square in image focuses on the creature encased in cocoon) seen inside the cocoon wall. Like other eukaryotes, the Vortella animal was equipped with a nucleus, in this case a large horseshoe-shape nucleus inside the main body (C).

Springy Stalk

vorticella-like animal, or bell animal, sealed inside a leech cocoon

(Image credit: Danielle Cook France)

Past research has suggested Vorticella's coiled stalk, which is used to attach to substrates, may be one of the fastest cellular engines known, changing from a telephone wirelike structure to a tight coil at a speed of about 8 centimeters per second — the equivalent of a human being walking the across more than three football fields in one second. In that research, MIT's Danielle Cook France and colleague used high-speed microscopes and special chemicals that could freeze the stalk in mid-coil, allowing them to take snap-shots of the stalk (shown here) as it contracted.

Live Vorticella

live vorticella organisms under microscope

(Image credit: Danielle Cook France)

Here, live Vorticella visualized using a high-speed microscope developed at MIT.