The exceptionally preserved Cambrian fossil record provides unique insight into the early evolutionary history of animals. Understanding of the mechanisms of exceptional soft tissue preservation frames all interpretations of the fauna and its evolutionary significance. This is especially true for recent interpretations of preserved nervous tissues in fossil ecdysozoans. However, models of soft tissue preservation lack empirical support from actualistic studies. Here experimental decay of the priapulid Priapulus reveal consistent bias towards rapid loss of internal non-cuticular anatomy compared with recalcitrant cuticular anatomy. This is consistent with models of Burgess Shale-type preservation and indicates that internal tissues are unlikely to be preserved with fidelity if organically preserved. This pattern, along with extreme body margin distortion, is consistent with onychophoran decay, and is therefore resolved as general for early ecdysozoans. Application of these patterns to phylogenetic data finds scalidophoran taxa to be very sensitive to taphonomically informed character coding, but not panarthropodan taxa. Priapulid decay also have unexpected relevance for interpretation of myomeres in fossil chordates. The decay data presented serve not only as a test of models of preservation but also a framework with which to interpret ecdysozoan fossil anatomies, and the subsequent evolutionary inferences drawn from them.
Rotting penis worms would be a great band name!