Chance Discovery Of New Fossil From Half Billion Years Ago Sheds Light On Life On Earth

Related Articles

Related Articles

Scientists from the universities of Leicester and Cambridge have discovered a new species of fossil that will shed light on early animal ecosystems.

Dr Tom Harvey from the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, together with Professor Nicholas Butterfield, University of Cambridge, discovered the new species while conducting a survey of microfossils in mudstones from western Canada.

To their surprise, the samples yielded miniscule loriciferans: a type of animal so small it has been considered “unfossilizable”.

Moreover, the fossils date to the late Cambrian Period, meaning they lived around half a billion years ago. This suggests that soon after the origin of animals, some groups were adopting specialized “meiobenthic” lifestyles, living among grains of sediment on the seabed.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the scientist have co-authored a paper in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Dr Harvey, a Lecturer in Geoscience at the University of Leicester, said: “I discovered the fossil loriciferans by accident while surveying other types of microfossil: this required many hours working at the microscope.


Subscribe to more articles like this by following our Google Discovery feed - Click the follow button on your desktop or the star button on mobile. Subscribe

“I kept finding mysterious fragments which looked like the back ends of loriciferans, but I told myself it was impossible.

“Finally, however, I found an exceptionally well-preserved specimen with a fossilized head still in place, proving its identity as a loriciferan. Then began the delicate task of cleaning the fossil and securing it on a microscope slide.

“Luckily I did this without breaking the specimen, by holding my breath and trying to keep a steady hand…”

Loriciferans are a group of miniscule animals, always less than a millimetre long, which live among grains of sediment on the seabed. They are easy to overlook: the first examples were described from modern environments as recently as the 1980s.

Dr Harvey added: “As well as being very small, loriciferans lack hard parts (they have no shell), so no-one expected them ever to be found as fossils – but here they are! The fossils represent a new genus and species, which we name Eolorica deadwoodensis, loosely meaning the “ancient corset-animal from rocks of the Deadwood Formation.”

“It’s remarkable that so early in their evolution, animals were already exploiting such specialized meiobenthic ecologies: shrinking their bodies down to the size of single-celled organisms, and living among grains of sediment on the seabed.”

Dr Harvey’s  area of research is the application of fossils to understand the origin and early evolution of animals. In particular, he looks at exceptionally well-preserved microscopic fossils to work out when the earliest animals lived, what they looked like, and how they fed, moved, and interacted with one another and their environment.

He said: “By studying the earliest fossil animals, we can trace the history of our own evolution and find out how life on Earth came to be so diverse. Unknown to many people, there is a hidden world of tiny animals inhabiting the spaces between sand grains on beaches and under the sea. Despite their small size, these animals are an important link in the food chain, and they help recycle nutrients in marine ecosystems. The discovery of specialised microscopic loriciferans shows that as long ago as the Cambrian Period (around half a billion years ago), some animals had already adapted to this specialized, cryptic way of life. Therefore, the ecological range of early animals has been underestimated, and we will have to think again about how these early ecosystems worked.”

“The dramatic diversification of animals known as the Cambrian “explosion” is a source of fascination to many people. Working out why animals evolved when they did, and how they came to dominate almost all ecosystems on Earth, is a longstanding scientific question that affects how we think about our place in the universe.”

The scientists added that the new fossils also support a close relationship between loriciferans and another obscure group of animals (the priapulid worms), helping to piece together the tree of animal life.

Dr Harvey used a specially designed laboratory technique to extract the delicate microfossils from mudstone, using strong acid combined with gentle sieving. This allowed the tiny fossils, which are less than half a millimetre long, to be extracted from the rock – revealing a previously hidden aspect to early animal life on Earth.

He said: “We have developed a new technique for extracting delicate microscopic fossils from ancient rocks, promising to shed new light on early animal evolution

“We also now have a search-image for very small fossil animals. Perhaps they are extremely rare – or perhaps they are widespread, but have been overlooked. Hopefully more will now come to light, giving further insights into when tiny animals first evolved, and how they diversified to eventually become such an important component of modern ecosystems.”

UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER

- Advertisement -

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Volubilis – The Ancient Berber City

Volubilis is an archaeological site and ancient Berber city that many archaeologists believe was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania.

Pella – Birthplace of Alexander The Great

Pella is an archaeological site and the historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

New Argentine fossils uncover history of celebrated conifer group

Newly unearthed, surprisingly well-preserved conifer fossils from Patagonia, Argentina, show that an endangered and celebrated group of tropical West Pacific trees has roots in the ancient supercontinent that once comprised Australia, Antarctica and South America, according to an international team of researchers.

High-tech CT reveals ancient evolutionary adaptation of extinct crocodylomorphs

The tree of life is rich in examples of species that changed from living in water to a land-based existence.

Fish fossils become buried treasure

Rare metals crucial to green industries turn out to have a surprising origin. Ancient global climate change and certain kinds of undersea geology drove fish populations to specific locations.

Archaeologists Discover Viking Toilet in Denmark

Archaeologists excavating a settlement on the Stevns Peninsula in Denmark suggests they have discovered a toilet from the Viking Age.

Innovation by ancient farmers adds to biodiversity of the Amazon, study shows

Innovation by ancient farmers to improve soil fertility continues to have an impact on the biodiversity of the Amazon, a major new study shows.

Lost Shiva Temple Buried in Sand Discovered by Local Villagers

Villagers from the Perumallapadu village in the Pradesh’s Nellore district of India have unearthed the 300-year-old Temple of Nageswara Swamy on the banks of the Penna River.

Ma’rib – Capital of the Kingdom of Saba

Ma'rib is an archaeological site and former capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba in modern-day Ma'rib in Yemen

Giant Egg Discovered in Antarctica Belonged to Marine Reptile

A large fossil discovered in Antarctica by Chilean researchers in 2011 has been found to be a giant, soft-shell egg from 66 million years ago.

Popular stories