Fossilized compound eyes from the Cambrian, isolated and three-dimensionally preserved, provide remarkable insights into the lifestyle and habitat of their owners.
The tiny stalked compound eyes described here probably possessed too few facets to form a proper image, but they represent a sophisticated system for detecting moving objects.
The eyes are preserved as almost solid, mace-shaped blocks of phosphate, in which the original positions of the rhabdoms in one specimen are retained as deep cavities. Analysis of the optical axes reveals four visual areas, each with different properties in acuity of vision. They are surveyed by lenses directed forwards, laterally, backwards and inwards, respectively. The most intriguing of these is the putatively inwardly orientated zone, where the optical axes, like those orientated to the front, interfere with axes of the other eye of the contralateral side.
The result is a three-dimensional visual net that covers not only the front, but extends also far laterally to either side. Thus, a moving object could be perceived by a two-dimensional coordinate (which is formed by two axes of those facets, one of the left and one of the right eye, which are orientated towards the moving object) in a wide three-dimensional space.
This compound eye system enables small arthropods equipped with an eye of low acuity to estimate velocity, size or distance of possible food items efficiently. The eyes are interpreted as having been derived from individuals of the early crustacean Henningsmoenicaris scutula pointing to the existence of highly efficiently developed eyes in the early evolutionary lineage leading towards the modern Crustacea.
So where are those really simple eyes that just sort of happened by accident back then?