Dr Rahman’s research uses echinoderms as a model group for uncovering the origin and early evolution of animals more broadly. His work is focused on Palaeozoic fossils, which document the earliest steps in the evolution of the echinoderm body plan. Fossils are analysed with the aid of high-resolution X-ray tomography and computer simulations (e.g. computational fluid dynamics), providing new insights into their morphology, systematics and function. This has informed rigorous tests of long-standing hypotheses concerning the mode of life, phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary history of early echinoderms, with implications for understanding the Cambrian explosion and the emergence of animals more generally.
Related research interests include Ediacaran organisms and their ecosystems, the anatomy and development of deuterostomes and techniques for three-dimensional visualization and analysis of fossil and modern specimens.
Computer simulation of water flow around Protocinctus mansillaensis, a fossil echinoderm from the Cambrian of Spain, Rahman et al. 2015
Three-dimensional computer reconstruction of Heropyrgus disterminus, a fossil echinoderm from the Silurian of Herefordshire, UK, Briggs et al. 2017
Imran Rahman is Deputy Head of Research at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and is currently supported by a Museum Research Fellowship. He is also a Junior Research Fellow at St Cross College. Prior to this, Imran was supported by an 1851 Research Fellowship split between the University of Bristol and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Gregarious suspension feeding in a modular Ediacaran organism.
Gibson, BM, Rahman, IA, Maloney, KM, Racicot, RA, Mocke, H, Laflamme, M, Darroch, SAF
Reconstructing Precambrian eukaryotic paleoecology is pivotal to understanding the origins of the modern, animal-dominated biosphere. Here, we combine new fossil data from southern Namibia with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to test between competing feeding models for the Ediacaran taxon Ernietta. In addition, we perform simulations for multiple individuals, allowing us to analyze hydrodynamics of living communities. We show that Ernietta lived gregariously, forming shallow marine aggregations in the latest Ediacaran, 548 to 541 million years (Ma) ago. We demonstrate enhanced vertical mixing of the water column above aggregations and preferential redirection of current into body cavities of downstream individuals. These results support the reconstruction of Ernietta as a macroscopic suspension feeder and also provide a convincing paleoecological advantage to feeding in aggregations analogous to those recognized in many extant marine metazoans. These results provide some of the oldest evidence of commensal facilitation by macroscopic eukaryotes yet recognized in the fossil record.
Reconstructing the evolutionary assembly of animal body plans is challenging when there are large morphological gaps between extant sister taxa, as in the case of echinozoans (echinoids and holothurians). However, the inclusion of extinct taxa can help bridge these gaps. Here we describe a new species of echinozoan, Sollasina cthulhu, from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte, UK. Sollasina cthulhu belongs to the ophiocistioids, an extinct group that shares characters with both echinoids and holothurians. Using physical-optical tomography and computer reconstruction, we visualize the internal anatomy of S. cthulhu in three dimensions, revealing inner soft tissues that we interpret as the ring canal, a key part of the water vascular system that was previously unknown in fossil echinozoans. Phylogenetic analyses strongly suggest that Sollasina and other ophiocistioids represent a paraphyletic group of stem holothurians, as previously hypothesized. This allows us to reconstruct the stepwise reduction of the skeleton during the assembly of the holothurian body plan, which may have been controlled by changes in the expression of biomineralization genes.
Reconstructing the feeding mode of the latest common ancestor of deuterostomes is key to elucidating the early evolution of feeding in chordates and allied phyla; however, it is debated whether the ancestral deuterostome was a tentaculate feeder or a pharyngeal filter feeder. To address this, we evaluated the hydrodynamics of feeding in a group of fossil stem-group echinoderms (cinctans) using computational fluid dynamics. We simulated water flow past three-dimensional digital models of a Cambrian fossil cinctan in a range of possible life positions, adopting both passive tentacular feeding and active pharyngeal filter feeding. The results demonstrate that an orientation with the mouth facing downstream of the current was optimal for drag and lift reduction. Moreover, they show that there was almost no flow to the mouth and associated marginal groove under simulations of passive feeding, whereas considerable flow towards the animal was observed for active feeding, which would have enhanced the transport of suspended particles to the mouth. This strongly suggests that cinctans were active pharyngeal filter feeders, like modern enteropneust hemichordates and urochordates, indicating that the ancestral deuterostome employed a similar feeding strategy.