Australian Paleontologists have discovered half-a-billion-year-old fossils that show some primitive animals had exceptional vision.

A team directed by scientists from the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaid found the exquisite fossils, which resemble squashed eyes from a contemporary fly.

The lead author, Michael Lee, is the Associate Professor at South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide's School of Earth & Environmental Sciences.

Dr John Paterson (University of New England), Dr Jim Jago (South Australian Museum and UniSA), Dr Diego Garcia-Bellido (Instituto de Geología Económica, Madrid), Dr Greg Edgecombe (Natural History Museum, London), and Dr Jim Gehling (South Australian Museum) were also involved in the study.

The study found that modern insects and crustaceans have compound eyes made of hundreds or up to thousands of separate lenses and each lens produces a pixel of vision. High number of lenses leads to higher visual resolution.

The fossil compound eyes were discovered on Kangaroo Island, South Australia and are 515 million years old. They have more than 3000 lenses, making them stronger than anything from that era, and most likely belonged to an active predator that was able to see things in dim light.

'It's like opening a time capsule to a 500 million-year-old ocean,'' Dr Gehling said. 

This shows that some of the earliest animals had exceptional vision; similar eyes are discovered in many living insects, such as robber flies. Powerful vision must therefore have evolved very fast, soon after the first predators showed up during the Cambrian Explosion of life that started around 540 million years ago.

Given the big adaptive advantage conferred by strong vision for hiding from predators and locating food and shelter, there could well have been huge evolutionary pressure to elaborate and refine visual organs.

As the fossil eyes were discovered isolated, it's not sure what animal they came from, but they were likely belonged to a big shrimp-like creature. The rocks having the eyes also preserve a dazzling array of ancient marine creatures, lots of them new to science. They include primitive trilobite-like creatures, armored worms, and large swimming predators with jointed feeding appendages.

''Any of these beasts, if plonked in an aquarium today, would probably do well. We're not looking at clumsy, slow, ill-formed beasts,'' Dr Gehling said. 

The newly discovered fossil eyes would have been capable of seeing the world with over 3,000 pixels, allowing its owner a massive visual advantage over its contemporaries -- which would have seen a much blurry world with approximately 100 pixels. This is so much better than the living horseshoe crab, which sees the world as 1000 pixels, but not as good as living dragonflies, which have the utmost compound eyes and see the world as 28,000 pixels.

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