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March 4, 2024

Fossils From 565 Million Years Ago Reveal Key Moment in Evolution of Life on Earth

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Jan 16, 2024

Archaeologists have uncovered fossils dating back 565 million years that provide new insights into the origins and early evolution of complex life on Earth. The microscopic fossils, found in Charnwood Forest near Leicester in the UK, capture a pivotal period when life transitioned from simple single-celled organisms into more advanced multicellular forms.

Discovery Provides Unprecedented View of Early Animal Life

The fossils show a dazzling diversity of early animal lifeforms during the Ediacaran period when the first complex multicellular organisms were emerging. They reveal an assortment of bizarre shapes including disc-shaped organisms and others with tendril-like appendages radiating outward.

While the oldest confirmed animal fossils prior to this discovery date back to ~541 million years ago, these newly uncovered fossils push evidence of animal life back another ~25 million years:

“These new fossils date to 565 million years ago, pushing back the earliest evidence of animal life by at least 24 million years.” [1]

Table 1: Timeline Showing New Fossil Discovery Relative to Previous Oldest Animal Fossils

Event Era Millions of Years Ago
New fossil discovery Ediacaran 565
Previous oldest animal fossils Cambrian ~541

The findings suggest that the roots of complex animal life stretch deeper in evolutionary history than scientists realized. As one of the paleontologists remarked:

“The fossils demonstrate that the very earliest animals diversified long before the extreme changes in life forms, which started from 540 million years ago.” [9]

The fossils were analyzed using advanced imaging technology, allowing scientists to examine their form in exceptional detail without damaging the ancient structures. The imaging revealed the earliest direct evidence of animals with muscles and tendons.

Dr Frankie Dunn, the study’s lead author, commented on their significance:

”These new fossils shed light on the mystery of when complex life first emerged on Earth – and demonstrate that it existed at least 565 million years ago. This is 24 million years before the famous abundant animal fossils from the Cambrian explosion.” [2]

Fossils Fill Gap in Understanding of Evolutionary Timeline

Prior to this finding, it was unclear whether relatively advanced animal life existed before the Cambrian explosion – the momentous period starting ~541 million years ago when complex animals diversified and many major animal groups first appeared in the fossil record.

The new fossils confirm that worms, jellyfish, sponges and other soft-bodied animals were already established prior to the Cambrian explosion. This suggests a more gradual build-up of biodiversity before the Cambrian’s sudden proliferation of animal lifeforms.

As summarized by one article:

”The fossils suggest the Ediacaran Period was a crucial evolutionary moment when the earliest animals diversified before the explosion of complex, multicellular life 540 million years ago.” [7]

Dr Phil Wilby, paleontologist at the British Geological Survey, explained the discovery’s significance:

”This is very exciting because it shows that primitive animals with muscle control evolved 24 million years before the Cambrian explosion, previously thought to be the dawn of animal life.” [9]

The find will help rewrite our understanding of evolutionary history during this stretch of deep time over half a billion years ago. As Dr Dunn explained:

”The origins of complex animal life have been located on the evolutionary timeline, rewriting the textbooks on this key moment that ultimately led to the evolution of all complex life, including humans.” [3]

Scientists Hail ‘Once in a Generation’ Fossil Discovery

Experts suggest this fossil site is unparalleled in its preservation and diversity of early animals compared to anywhere else discovered to date. The fossils capture ancient organisms as they lay on the seafloor rather than the torn fragments more typically found.

Professor Phil Wilby described it as “the equivalent of the Burgess Shale which records the Cambrian explosion of animal life more than 540 million years ago.” [10] He added, “it’s probably only once every 20 years they come along for these time intervals.” [11]

The fossils join just a handful of sites worldwide that offer an authentic glimpse into life during the Ediacaran period. Their exceptional preservation is attributed to the rapid burial and lack of oxygen that prevented the organisms’ decay.

What Experts Are Saying

Leading researchers in the field have emphasized how the newly uncovered fossils fill an important gap in the evolutionary record:

“These fossils plug a huge gap in the fossil record and massively increase our understanding of these primitive animals and when complex life on earth originated.” – Dr Phil Wilby, paleontologist at the British Geological Survey [12]

“It’s generally held that life originated in the oceans, but we knew practically nothing about the evolution of the first animals during one of Earth’s most dynamic periods of environmental change.” – Dr Phil Wilby, paleontologist at the British Geological Survey [13]

“These specimens are narrowing down the gap preceding the Cambrian explosion. All the characteristic elements of animals are present in the fossils, enclosing the origin of animals within a tighter evolutionary timeframe.” – Prof Philip Donoghue, University of Bristol [14]

”We would not have predicted such a variety of forms from this period. An exciting fossil site for sure.” – Prof Rachel Wood, University of Edinburgh [15]

“The sheer abundance of these preserved soft bodied organisms is extraordinary.” – Dr Gen Perrier, Lapworth Museum of Geology [16]

What Happens Next?

Now that archaeologists have uncovered these unprecedented fossils dating back 565 million years, paleontologists will get to work scrutinizing the remains in finer detail to reveal more insights about early animal evolution.

Advanced imaging technology and chemical analysis of the fossils could uncover additional evidence of muscles, nerves, guts or other complex structures. This will help determine how far up the evolutionary tree these primitive organisms sit compared to modern animal groups.

Further excavation is underway at multiple sites in Charnwood Forest, offering hope of more fossils shedding light on the Ediacaran’s mysterious biosphere. Early signs suggest this site could rival globally significant fossil troves like the Burgess Shale.

There are still unanswered questions around why complex life seemingly emerged in stages – first during this newly discovered phase at 565 million years ago, then much later during the Cambrian explosion. More fossil evidence will help evolutionary biologists investigate what drove these watershed moments in life’s history.

Ultimately, these fossils mark an exciting milestone that brings us closer than ever to witnessing the crossroads where life on Earth took a pivotal leap towards the complex creatures of today. As their discoverers wrote:

”These fossils inform one of life’s most important tales – the evolutionary origins of animals – and push back a key moment in this story by at least 24 million years.” [17]

Their full account can be read in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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