The mysterious Ediacaran fauna

During many years, it has been considered that the origin of metazoans (i.e. multicellular animals) took place in the Cambrian period (541-484 My ago) after the Cambrian Explosion. However, several scientists, including Darwin, already suspected that the true origin of metazoans must be even older.

Did metazoans exist in the ancient and understudied Precambrian supereon? We invite you to know the Ediacaran fauna, a paleontological puzzle and a clue link in the evolutive history of animals.

The mysterious Ediacaran fauna

Before start talking about the Ediacaran period and its odd fauna, we must set it into a geological time context.

Our planet Earth formed around 4600 My Ago. The span between Earth’s formation and the moment in time 543 My ago is known as Precambrian supereon, the first and largest period of history of Earth, as well as the less studied and comprehended. It is suggested that the first life forms appeared 3800-3500 My ago, not very after the beginning of the Precambrian.

The end of the Precambrian supereon lead to the beginning of the Phanerozoic eon, whose first geological period, the Cambrian, has been traditionally considered to set the origin of all phyla of metazoans (multicellular animals). All animal phyla were already represented shortly after the beginning of this period; that is, it took place a great diversification of living beings on a global scale in a short span, an evolutive radiation event. This massive evolutive event was named as Cambrian Explosion.

Geological time scale: end of the Precambrian supereon and beginning of the Phanerozoic eon (specifically, the Paleozoic era). The Ediacaran and the Cambrian are highlighted in red. Source: The Geological Society of America.

The idea of the Cambrian period as the cradle of most of animal groups was deduced from the study of fossil records and their age. However, is it true that the origin of every animal phyla took place entirely during this period? Some scientists, as the selfsame Darwin, suspected that the first metazoan lineages could have appeared even earlier.

Precambrian fossils

The Precambrian was an instable period at a geological level: tectonic movements, vulcanism… put many troubles in the preservation of any biological rest. On the other hand, the succession of several global glaciations during this supereon (‘Snowball Earth’), the last of which took place 650 My ago, put even more difficulties into the progression of life on Earth.

No wonder, so, that the Cambrian, a more stable period from both a geologic and climatic point of view, was long considered the origin of metazoans, since the geological instability during the Precambrian presumably made it impossible to preserve any fossil record. That is, supposedly there were not “clues” about the existence of metazoans before the Cambrian Explosion.

However, something happened. At the end of the 19th century, a Scottish scientist discovered what was later considered as the first Precambrian fossil ever known: Aspidella terranovica, a disk-shaped fossil of uncertain affinity. But as it was found in Precambrian strata, it was considered an artifact.

Aspidella fossils (also known as Cyclomedusa, currently a synonym). Its shape reminds of that of a jellyfish. Source: Verisimilus (CC 3.0) on Wikipedia.

This discovery was followed by others throughout the world, in which fossils from the Precambrian were also found (e. g., Namibia and Australia), but the strong belief that multicellular animals appeared during the Cambrian or even later eclipsed the true origin of these fossil records for many years. It was not until the 20th century and after the discovery of a second iconic fossil in Charnwood Forest (England), Charnia masoni, that the Precambrian origin of metazoans was not really considered, this fossil being the first to be recognized as Precambrian. So, Aspidella terranovica, Charnia and the rest of Precambrian fossil records would be, at last, connected.

Charnia masoni holotype. Despite its frond-like appearance, it is not considered a plant or an alga since the nature of the fossil beds where specimens have been found implies that it originally lived in deep water, well below the photic zone where photosynthesis can occur. Source: Smith609 (CC 2.5) on Wikipedia.

The Ediacaran period

At last, Precambrian fossil have been found all over the world. Most of them have been found in strata date from 575-541 My ago, marking the end of the Precambrian and the beginning of the Phanerozoic.

Nowadays, representatives of the Ediacaran fauna occur at 40 localities worldwide, with 4 particularly good localities:

  • Southeastern Newfoundland (Canada)
  • The Flinders Ranges (South of Australia)
  • White Sea region (Russia)
  • Namibia

In 1960, the term ‘Ediacaran’ was proposed to name the geological span which the Ediacaran fauna is date from. The term comes from the Ediacara Hills in Australia, where one of the most important Precambrian fossil sites is found. This name competed with others, but in 2004, the International Union of Geological Sciences stablished the Ediacaran as the period that started 635 My ago (after the Marinoan glaciation) and that ended 542 My ago (with the discover of the earliest widespread complex trace fossil).

The Ediacaran fauna

Once the Precambrian was finally accepted as the origin of metazoans, and assuming that complex animals appeared during a hypothetical explosion of diversity just after the great Precambrian glaciations and some million years before the Cambrian (Avalon Explosion), some questions were raised:

How did the Ediacaran fauna look like?

Most of fossil records of the Ediacaran fauna consist of macroscopic, morphologically diverse (mainly radial or circular shapes) and generally soft-bodied organisms, without hard elements that could last until our days. This can be deduced from the shape and typology of the fossils, since most of them are simply marks or trails they left after dying, preserved in a manner that is, in many cases, unique to the Ediacaran fauna.

Tribrachidium fossil. It is, in fact, a negative impression, that is, the trail that the animal left after dying. It is suggested that it could be an organism with triradial symmetry very close to nowadays Lophophorata. Source: Aleksey Nagovitsyn (CC 3.0) on Wikipedia.

Besides, they were probably sessile, aquatic, with feather-like structures and filter feeders. However, several researchers consider that a few of them could be free-living animals with a bilateral symmetry (that is, with an anteroposterior axis that splits the body into two symmetric halves), one of the most successful body plans after the Cambrian Explosion.

Dickinsonia costata fossil. According to its shape, it was probably a bilateral animal (with a ‘head’ and an ‘anus’), and for a long time it was suggested that it was related to some kind of flat worm, some of which could be up to 1 meter long. In 2018, cholesterol molecules found in Dickinsonia fossils confirmed that it was an animal. Source: Verisimilus (CC 3.0) on Wikipedia.

With which current groups do they relate?

The fact is we still do not know. Most of them have shapes that reminds of some basal metazoans (like sponges and cnidarians) and a few, to annelids and arthropods. However, these are artificial relationships, as phylogenetic relationships between the Ediacaran fauna and the current fauna are still a mystery. Even some fossils cannot be related to any nowadays phyla, so they are considered as a part of an extinct Precambrian lineage.

However, not everything is lost. Similarities between some Ediacaran fossils and current metazoans shed some light on how animals could have evolved, and which was their origin.

Why Ediacaran fossils are not found beyond the Ediacaran period?

The fact is they are found in strata that date from after the Ediacaran period. Posterior studies demonstrated that some Ediacaran organisms were located in Cambrian strata together with fossils that resulted from the Cambrian Explosion, so it would be possible some representatives of the Ediacaran fauna gave place to certain current groups of animals. However, it is true that Ediacaran fauna representatives are found in a smaller proportion in Cambrian strata than other Cambrian organisms, and many living forms had already disappeared.

There exist some hypotheses that explain why most of the Ediacaran fauna did not survived beyond the Cambrian, for example:

  • Changes in atmospheric oxygen levels.
  • Competence with the Cambrian fauna, which probably had better adapted bodies or more successful body plans.
  • Changes in the sea level.

Are the Ediacaran organisms the true origin of metazoans?

Although this has been the general belief after their discovery, the truth is that even older metazoans have been recently found.

As we have explained above, most representatives of the Ediacaran fauna date from 575-541 My ago. Well, evidence of ancient sponges (Porifera) from 600 My ago has been found. The most recent discovery was that of Otavia antiqua in 2012 in Namibia, a sponge date from 760 My ago; that is, it is dated from before some of the great Precambrian glaciations.

Otavia antiqua. Source: National Geographic.

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Do you believe there are even older metazoan fossils out to be discovered? Leave your comments!

Main image by Ryan Somma, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (CC 2.0).

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