Scientists stunned by oldest animal fossil: Gives new understanding of ancestors

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Animals are something that are known as multicellular eukaryotes: Complicated lifeforms that consume organic material, breathe oxygen and live now as the varied and complex creatures we see today. Their earliest ancestors looked nothing like them, and likely started as small and basic organisms. They may have even been a sponge, similar to sea sponges.

These sponges are a kind of organism still in existence today, whose close relatives, according to scientists, are a good candidate for early animals.

This is because they have simple body plans, essentially tube-like structures that filter feed.

And, they also have relatively few types of cells.

But, determining if sponges were the first kind of animal has proved tricky for researchers.

However, a fossil discovered earlier this year has led them to believe that it could, in fact, be the oldest animal ever.

A series of what look like squiggly lines were discovered on rock in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

But, some believe that they are physical evidence of an ancient animal.

If true, it would push the first physical evidence of animals on the planet back by 300 million years.

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The find was published in the science journal, Nature, by Elizabeth C Turned, titled: ‘Possible poriferan body fossils in early Neoproterozoic microbial reefs.’

It was explored by the journal during its short explainer video, ‘Is this the world’s oldest animal fossil?’

Currently, the earliest fossils that scientists are relatively sure are animals come from around 550 million years ago.

This was just before the Cambrian explosion, an interval of time around 541 million years ago when practically all major animal phyla started appearing in the fossil record.

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Older fossils have been contentious as it is hard to figure out what is an animal and what is not.

The new find would push back the first evidence of animals to 890 million years ago.

One argument for the rock face patterns is that this really is an ancient fossil animal, and that the complex branching structure is similar to some modern sponges.

However, not everyone is convinced.

Some scientists believe that it is possible the patterns could have been made by bacterial mats.

It would have also been difficult for animals to survive 890 million years ago, a time with very little oxygen.

But the fossil was found intermeshed with bacterial structures, suggesting that the organism could have lived in close proximity with photosynthesising bacteria, in small oxygen-rich oases.

When lined up, the fossil also looks very similar to more recent discoveries from around 500 million years ago that are also believed to be ancient sponges.

The narrator of the Nature video noted: “If this really is evidence of an 89-million-year-old animal, it would have survived massive climatic changes, including an extreme cold period some call ‘Snowball Earth’.

“While there is a debate about the fossil’s animal nature, if true, it could give us a new understanding of how our ancestors formed almost a billion years ago.”

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