University of Hull researcher uncovers new evidence on some of Earth’s earliest marine life

Fossils found in Australia and studied by a University of Hull researcher have revealed new details on some of the earliest marine life on Earth.

Experts uncovered fossils of Earth’s first macroscopic animals – the roughly 550-million-year-old Ediacara biota – in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges.

Scientists had previously thought that these archaic lifeforms lived out to sea in calmer waters. 

But the new study, published in Journal of Sedimentary Research, found these ancient marine creatures actually inhabited shallow, coastal waters.

It provides researchers with vital new information into how some of the earliest organisms on Earth may have lived, and also how they met their demise.

William McMahon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hull.
William McMahon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hull.

Lead author William McMahon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hull, said: “These fossils offer valuable information about the early history of large and complex organisms on Earth. 

“Now we know these organisms were able to live in water depths shallow enough to paddle in, we can start to reassess how and where the early ancestors of several living animal groups originally evolved and diversified.”

The new findings show that these early organisms had already evolved traits to deal with waves and tidal currents, on what was a turbulent coastline half a billion years ago.  

Ediacaran fossils are found in only a handful of places on Earth. One of the youngest sites is in Namibia, where species diversity is far reduced compared with the older Australian examples and others like it. 

Scientists had linked this to the fact that the rocks in Namibia were deposited in shallow, turbulent waters, which most organisms at the time weren’t equipped to handle. 

“Our discovery that the Australian Ediacaran fossils are found in rocks also preserving widely recognisable coastal sedimentary features like ripples and dunes proves that these early animals were active and abundant in very shallow waters,” said Alex Liu, lecturer at the University of Cambridge and co-author on the study.

Ediacaran fossils are found in only a handful of places on Earth.
Ediacaran fossils are found in only a handful of places on Earth.

By studying the different layers of rocks in South Australia, McMahon and co-authors were able to ‘time-travel’ to a period when the region was inhabited by otherworldly and long-extinct organisms like Dickinsonia and Spriggina – dinner-plate or worm-shaped creatures respectively that lived and fed on a layer of algal and bacterial slime.

The new fossils prove that these 500 million-year-old organisms were in fact able to inhabit harsh, near-shore conditions. 

The reduced diversity observed in the younger Namibian deposits might therefore suggest genuine evolutionary change, for example a mass extinction, potentially the first such event on Planet Earth.

Studies of Ediacaran fossils in the Flinders Ranges can be traced back to 1947 and Reginald Sprigg’s original report of fossil “jellyfish” from the Ediacara Hills, a name subsequently given to the “Ediacaran System” of geological time. 

Research from the region has thrown significant light on the early history of multicellular life. The recognition that the organisms had established a foothold in coastal waters opens up new avenues for research into their evolution and ultimate disappearance. 

Animal life would not make it fully onto the land until a later period of time known as the Silurian. 

However, the new discovery in Australia suggests Earth’s coastal waters were already home to a diverse range of creatures over 100 million years earlier.

[Phil Winter – University of Hull]

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