The things you can tell from a pile of corpses…

I’m really late to this party, but I never claimed to be timely, and the thing about the reproductive habits of Fractofusus is too interesting not to cover.* Rangeomorphs  like Fractofusus are really odd creatures. They lived in that Ediacaran twilight zone between older Precambrian seas devoid of macroscopic animals and younger Cambrian seas teeming with recognisable members of modern groups. Rangeomorphs such as RangeaCharnia and Fractofusus itself have such a unique fractal body plan (Narbonne, 2004) that no one really knows what they are. Although they were probably not photosynthetic like plants or algae (they are abundant in deep sea sediments where there wouldn’t have been enough light), their odd body architectures are equally difficult to compare to any animal that we know.

Mitchell et al. (2015) don’t bring us any closer to the solution of that mystery; they do, however, use the ultimate power of Maths to deduce how the enigmatic creatures might have reproduced. Fractofusus is an oval-shaped thingy that could be anywhere from 1 cm to over 40 cm in length. Unlike some other rangeomorphs, it lay flat on the seafloor with no holdfasts or stalks to be seen. Fractofusus fossils are very common in the Ediacaran deposits of Newfoundland. Since there are so many of them, and there is no evidence that they were capable of movement in life, the researchers figured their spatial distribution might offer some clues as to their reproductive habits. A bit of seafloor covered in Fractofusus might look something like this (drawing from the paper):

clusters within clusters

(The lines between individuals don’t actually come from the fossils, they just represent the putative connection between a parent and its babies.)

Statistical models suggest that the fossils are not randomly distributed but clearly clustered: small specimens around medium-sized ones, which are in turn gathered around the big guys. Two out of three populations examined show these clusters-within-clusters; the third has only one layer of clustering, but it’s still far from random. As the authors note, the real populations they studied involve a lot more specimens than shown in the diagram, but they “rarefied” them a bit for clarity of illustration while keeping their general arrangement.

The study looked not only at the distances between small, medium and large specimens, but also directions – both of where the specimens were and which way they pointed. If young Fractofusus spread by floating on the waves, they’d be influenced by currents in the area. It seems the largest specimens were – they are unevenly distributed in different directions. In contrast, smaller individuals were clustered around the bigger ones without regard to direction. Small and large specimens alike pointed randomly every which way.

What does this tell us about reproduction? The authors conclude that the big specimens probably arrived on the current as waterborne youngsters, hence their arrangement along particular lines . However, once there, they must have colonised their new home in a way that doesn’t involve currents. Mitchell et al. think that way was probably stolons – tendrils that grew out from the parent and sprouted a new individual at the end. This idea is further strengthened by the fact that among thousands of specimens, not a single one shows evidence for other types of clonal reproduction – no fragments, and no budding individuals, are known. (Plus if a completely sessile organism fragments, surely the only way the pieces could spread anywhere would be by riding currents, and that would show up in their distribution.)

Naturally, none of this tells us whether Fractofusus was an animal, a fungus or something else entirely. Sending out runners is not a privilege of a particular group, and while there is evidence that the original founders of the studied populations came from far away on the waves, we have no idea what it was that floated in to take root in those pieces of ancient seafloor. Was it a larva? A spore? A small piece of adult tissue? Damned if we know. Despite what Wikipedia and news headlines would have you believe, there is nothing to suggest that sex was involved. It may have been, but the evidence is silent on that count. (Annoyingly, the news articles themselves acknowledge that. Fuck headlines is all I’m saying…)

While sometimes we gain insights into ancient reproductive habits via spectacular fossils like brooding dinosaurs or pregnant ichthyosaurs, this study is a nice reminder that in some cases, a lot can be deduced even in the absence of such blatant evidence. This was an interesting little piece of Precambrian ecology, and a few remarks in the paper suggest more to come: “Other taxa exhibit an intriguing range of non-random habits,” the penultimate paragraph says, “and our preliminary analyses indicate that Primocandelabrum and Charniodiscus may have also reproduced using stolons.”

An intriguing range of non-random habits? No citations? I wanna know what’s brewing!

***

*Also, I’ve got to write something so I can pat myself on the back for actually achieving something beyond getting out of bed. Let’s just say Real Life sucks, depression sucks worse, and leave it at that.

***

References:

Mitchell EG et al. (2015) Reconstructing the reproductive mode of an Ediacaran macro-organism. Nature 524:343-346

Narbonne GM (2004) Modular construction of Early Ediacaran complex life forms. Science 305:1141-1144

Wherein scientists DON’T spill blood over a Precambrian animal

Having gone through much of my backlog, I was going to post about pretty blue limpet shells, then I saw that people have been arguing over Haootia. You remember Haootia? It’s that Precambrian fossil with probable muscle impressions that looks kind of like a modern-day staurozoan jellyfish (living staurozoan Haliclystus californiensis by Allen Collins, Encyclopedia of Life; Haootia quadriformis reconstruction from Liu et al., 2014):

Liu_etal2014-haootia_recon

It’s pretty much a law of Precambrian palaeontology that no interpretation of a fossil can ever remain uncontested, and Haootia is no exception. Nonetheless, this might be the tamest debate anyone ever had about a Precambrian fossil, and it gives me all kinds of warm feels.

Good news: Miranda et al. (2015) don’t dispute that the fossils show muscle impressions. They don’t even dispute that they belong to a cnidarian-grade creature. However, they question some of the details of the muscular arrangement, which could have implications for what this creature was and how it functioned.

They don’t have much of an issue with the muscles that run along the stalk and arms. The main point of contention, as far as I can tell, is that the muscles that run around the body (called coronal muscles in modern jellies) are not that big in living staurozoans. Those are the muscles that regular jellyfish use to contract their bells while swimming, but staurozoans don’t swim and therefore don’t need huge coronal muscles.

By Liu et al.‘s (2014) reconstruction (see above), Haootia has pretty massive coronal muscles. Miranda et al. (2015) wonder whether this was really the case, or the deformation of the fossils combined with the subconscious influence of regular jellyfish misled the original authors. They offer an alternative reconstruction, in which most of the body musculature runs up and down rather than around the body wall:

Miranda_etal2015-haootia_alt_recon

However, they also entertain the possibility that Liu et al.‘s reconstruction is correct – in which case, they note, Haootia must have done something with those muscles. Did jellyfish-like pulsations somehow form part of its feeding method? Could this even be a precursor to the jellyfish way of swimming? Who knows!

Liu et al. (2015) gave the most amazing response – much of their short reply to Miranda et al.‘s comments is basically thanking them for all the extra information and insight. They seem really pleased that biologists who study living cnidarians are taking an interest in their fossils, and enthusiastic about fruitful discussions in the future. (I concur. Biologists and palaeontologists need to talk to each other!)

They did take another, closer look at Haootia and maintain that they still see a large amount of musculature running around the body. So perhaps this peculiar Precambrian animal was doing something peculiarly Precambrian that has few or no parallels in modern seas. “We must keep in mind,” they write,  “that some, or maybe most, Ediacaran body plans and feeding strategies may have been specifically adapted to Ediacaran conditions.”

Either way, the whole exchange makes me very warm and fuzzy – I love to see scientists having constructive debates and learning from each other. (I also love that Miranda et al. thank Alex Liu in their acknowledgements; they were so obviously not out to tear one another down.) Plus both teams agree that we DO have a cnidarian-type creature from the Precambrian, and we DO have lovely lovely muscle impressions. Here’s to nice people, and to the slowly sizzling fuse of the Cambrian explosion! 🙂

***

References:

Liu AG et al. (2014) Haootia quadriformis n. gen., n. sp., interpreted as a muscular cnidarian impression from the Late Ediacaran period (approx. 560 Ma). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281:20141202

Liu AG et al. (2015) The arrangement of possible muscle fibres in the Ediacaran taxon Haootia  quadriformis. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282:20142949

Miranda LS et al. (2015) Is Haootia quadriformis related to extant Staurozoa (Cnidaria)? Evidence from the muscular system reconsidered. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282:20142396

Because I couldn’t not post about Dendrogramma

And the deep sea surprises us yet again (photos of the type specimen of Dendrogramma enigmatica from Just et al. [2014]).

I totally ignored the original hype about these beasties. I saw them pop up on I Fucking Love Science the other day, read the headline, decided it was probably another annoyingly sensationalised news story about a moderately strange new species and went on with my life. (The fact that they kinda look like weird flatworms didn’t help) Well, now that I’ve seen the paper, I… nah, I don’t regret the decision to ignore the news story, because hyperbole like that headline about rewriting the tree of life drives me up the wall, but I am glad that I finally checked what the hype was all about.

It’s really cool, after all these years of humanity cataloguing the living world, to find something so weird that basically all we can say about it is that it’s an animal. At this point it’s not clear to me how much of that is genuine weirdness and how much is simply down to the lack of data. The organisms were found in bulk seafloor samples brought up from depths of 400 and 1000 m somewhere off Tasmania nearly thirty years ago, and they are apparently quite poorly preserved. There’s no DNA, though commenters on the PLoS article seem to think it might be possible to get some out of the specimens. (That would be nice!)

According to the authors’ description, the general organisation of Dendrogramma species can be discerned and is much like a cnidarian or a ctenophore – two basic germ layers with thick jelly in between, and a blind gut – but they appear to lack anything that would clearly identify them as a member of either group, such as comb rows or stinging cells. Because they appear to have only two germ layers, the authors conclude they are probably not bilaterians, but because they don’t have diagnostic features of any other kind of animal, and because there’s so much more we don’t know about them, they don’t feel brave enough to place them beyond that.

The beasties are made of a stalk and a flat disc; the mouth opens at the tip of the stalk and the gut extends into the disc, where it bifurcates repeatedly to form dozens of branches. Two comments on the PLoS website point out that this arrangement is a bit like a flatworm – many of which have a long pharynx that they can poke out to feed, and a highly branched intestine occupying most of the body (a lovely diagram and photo can be found in the bottom half of this page).

Superficially at least, it sounds possible that Dendrogramma‘s “stalk” is an extended pharynx. However, flatworms are bilaterians, and between their skin and their gut wall they are full of the tissues of the mesoderm, the third germ layer – muscles, simple kidneys, reproductive organs and quite a lot of cell-rich connective tissue. Just et al.‘s description of Dendrogramma states that the equivalent space in these creatures is filled with mesogloea, i.e. jelly with few or no cells. If Dendrogramma really lacks mesodermal tissues, then it wouldn’t make a very good flatworm! (The paper itself doesn’t discuss the flatworm option at all, presumably for similar reasons.)

Of course, the thing that piqued my interest in Dendrogramma is its supposed resemblance to certain Ediacaran fossils, specifically these ones. It would be awesome if we could demonstrate that the living and the fossil weirdos are related, since then determining what Dendrogramma is would also classify the extinct forms, but I’m not holding my breath on this count. The branching… whatevers in the fossils in question may look vaguely like the branching gut of Dendrogramma, but, as discussed above, so do flatworm guts. The similarity to the fossils may well have nothing to do with actual phylogenetic relatedness, which the authors sound well aware of.

Nature, helpful as always. >_>

It seems all we can do for the moment is wait for more material to come along, hopefully in a good enough state to make detailed investigations including genetic studies. My inner developmental biologist is also praying for embryos, but the gods aren’t generally kind enough to grant me these sorts of wishes 😛

I do quite like the name, though. Mmmmm, Dendrogramma. 🙂

***

Reference:

Just J et al. (2014) Dendrogramma, new genus, with two new non-bilaterian species from the marine bathyal of southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) – with similarities to some medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara. PLoS ONE 9:e102976

Precambrian muscles??? Oooooh!

Okay, consider this a cautious squee. I wish at least some of those Ediacaran fossils were a little more obvious. I mean, I might love fossils, but I’m trained to squirt nasty chemicals on bits of dead worm and play with protein sequences, not to look at faint impressions in rock and see an animal.

Most putative animals from the Ediacaran period, the “dark age” that preceded the Cambrian explosion, are confusing to the actual experts, not just to a lab/computer biologist with a fondness for long-dead things. The new paper by Liu et al. (2014) this post is about lists a “but see” for pretty much every interpretation they cite. The problem is twofold: one, as far as I can tell, most Ediacaran fossils don’t actually preserve that much interpretable detail. Two, Ediacaran organisms lived at a time when the kinds of animal body plans we’re familiar with today were just taking shape. The Ediacaran is the age of ancestors, and it would be more surprising to find a creature we can easily categorise (e.g. a snail) than a weird beastie that isn’t quite anything we know.

Having said that, Liu et al. think they are able to identify the new fossil they named Haootia quadriformis. Haootia comes from the well-known Fermeuse Formation of New Foundland, and is estimated to be about 560 million years old. The authors say its body plan – insofar as it can be made out on a flat image pressed into the rock – looks quite a lot like living staurozoan jellyfish, with a four-part symmetry and what appear to be branching arms or tentacles coming off the corners of its body. The most obvious difference is that Haootia seems to show the outline of a huge circular holdfast that’s much wider than usual for living staurozoans.

However, the most exciting thing about this fossil is not its shape, but the fact that most of it is made up of fine, highly organised parallelish lines – what the authors interpret as the impressions of muscle fibres. The fibres run in different directions according to their position in the body; for example, they seem to follow the long axes of the arms.

(Below: the type specimen of Haootia with some of the fibres visible, and various interpretive drawings of the same fossil. Liu et al. is a free paper, so anyone can go and look at the other pictures, which include close-ups of the fibres and an artistic reconstruction of the living animal.)

If the lines do indeed come from muscle fibres, then regardless of its precise affinities, Haootia is certainly an animal, and it is probably at least related to the group called eumetazoans, which includes cnidarians like jellyfish and bilaterians like ourselves (and maybe comb jellies, but let’s not open that can of jellies just now). Non-eumetazoans – sponges and Trichoplax – do not have muscles, and unless comb jellies really are what some people think they are, we can be almost certain that the earliest animals didn’t either.

Finding Ediacaran muscles is also interesting because it gives us further evidence that things capable of the kinds of movement attributed to some Ediacaran fossils really existed back then. Of course, it would have been nicer to find evidence of muscle and evidence of movement in the same fossils, but hey, this is the Precambrian. You take what you get.

(P.S.: Alex Liu is cool and I heart him. OK, I saw him give one short talk, interviewing for a job at my department that he didn’t get *sniffles*, so maybe I shouldn’t be pronouncing such fangirlish judgements, but that talk was awesome. As I’ve said before, my fangirlish affections are not very hard to win 🙂 )

***

Reference:

Liu AG et al. (2014) Haootia quadriformis n. gen., n. sp., interpreted as a muscular cnidarian impression from the Late Ediacaran period (approx. 560 Ma). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281:20141202

Aspidella on the move?

This is Aspidella:

(Peterson et al. [2003] via Palaeos)

The Internet tells me this is also Aspidella:

(Amy Campbell)

And so is this:

(Menon et al., 2013)

(How on earth did all of those things end up with the same name???)

Aspidella, you see, is one of those problematic Ediacaran fossils that may or may not belong to a single kind of organism, which may or may not be an animal. It’s an impression of something soft with a rather variable assortment of surface features, and hence it’s pretty hard to tell what made it, although the wide holdfast of some bottom-dwelling, filter-feeding animal is a popular opinion. This nice Charniodiscus specimen (Tina Negus via Wikipedia) explains why:

Seeing how fossils like these are one of our precious few sources of evidence on the early history of animals, any additional evidence to help us figure out what they were is awesome. It’s especially cool to find evidence of behaviour, because “behaviour” is something that only certain groups of organisms exhibit, and some of the candidates for Ediacaran thingies like this (e.g. fungi, lichens, microbial mats) specifically don’t.

In a short paper in Geology, Menon et al. (2013) argue that they have found such evidence in some Aspidella specimens from the mid-Ediacaran Fermeuse Formation of Newfoundland. There are two kinds of features they report on. First, there are shallow, short trails that look like whatever made the impressions slid or hopped along a soft sediment surface in short movements. Some of the trails show faint impressions of the radiating ridges some conventional Aspidella specimens possess (like the one below, taken from the paper):

They are fairly rare, the best bet for finding them being slabs of rock practically carpeted with Aspidellas. A couple of things indicate that they weren’t just made by some random current or mudslide sweeping hapless Aspidella creatures along. For one thing, even in a whole pile of Aspidella imprints, you’ll find only a few such trails. (Although that could be because most of the living creatures would have been firmly rooted to the sediment!) For another, neighbouring trails point in all kinds of random directions, so if it was a current, it must have been the most chaotic one in earth history.

The other kind of evidence is what looks like the “evolution” of vertical burrows, layers of sediment dipping downwards like there used to be something sitting on them that gradually relocated further up as more sand and mud accumulated around it. Of course, an animal sitting in the mud isn’t the only thing that can produce similar features, so the authors considered a few alternatives.

They didn’t find any signs of water or gas bubbles escaping. They also didn’t think the features looked like sediment slumping into a hole, which they actually experimented with by piling sand and mud on top of dissolving liquid capsules (laundry capsules?? :o). The dips produced by falling sediment get conspicuously shallower towards the top, which the fossil dips don’t seem to do, plus the latter also have round structures like small Aspidella on top. Personally, I find the photos of the fossil dips really hard to compare with the picture of the experimental dips, though. Here’s perhaps the best specimen they show alongside one of their experiments:

Yeah… I can kind of see where you’re coming from, but…

So the idea is that an animal lived with its rear end buried in the sediment and its feeding structures up in the water column. As the water brought in more sediment (the Fermeuse Formation is thought to be marine in origin), the unknown creature moved upwards to avoid complete burial. Eventually, it would die, leaving behind a stack of little dips indicating its previous seats, topped by a good old-fashioned Aspidella impression.

Interestingly, only small Aspidella are associated with these vertical traces. Did young and old Aspidella creatures live in different ways, or do larger specimens simply belong to a different organism?

The authors specifically think the Aspidella animal was cnidarian-like because other possible candidates such as sponges and giant moving protists haven’t been observed to move vertically through sediment. Only well-muscled creatures like sea anemones (and bilaterians, but there’s absolutely no reason to think this thing was a bilaterian) are known to do that.

Which is really pretty exciting – more Ediacarans directly associated with traces of movement! I maybe should have mentioned that the paper keeps going on about Retallack (2013), mainly to say that it was Wrong, but I thought it was interesting enough in its own right. The fact that it discusses signs of animal-like behaviour in a kind of fossil that’s also common in the Australian rocks reinterpreted by Retallack as terrestrial is kind of beside the point.

***

References:

Menon LR et al. (2013) Evidence of Cnidaria-like behavior in ca. 560 Ma Ediacaran Aspidella. Geology advance online publication 06/06/2013, doi: 10.1130/G34424.1

Peterson KJ et al. (2003) A fungal analog for Newfoundland Ediacaran fossils? Integrative and Comparative Biology 43:127-136

Retallack GJ (2013) Ediacaran life on land. Nature 493:89–92

Oh, look, an argument!

It seems like forever since I posted about the very old putative bilaterian burrows Pecoits et al. (2012) reported in Science. I read the paper, thought about the implications, wrote the post and then filed the whole thing away in the giant messy cabinet at the back of my mind.

But a big claim like the one Pecoits et al. made – burrows from bilateran animals that appear before the first Ediacaran fossils! – is unlikely to go unchallenged by the scientific community. Now the argument has broken out. Gaucher et al. (2013) wrote a comment in Science criticising the reasoning that put such an old date on the formation where the burrows were found. Pecoits et al. (2013) responded. The plot is thickening!

The main bone of contention seems to be whether the huge body of granite that gave the actual radiometric date of 585 million years lies below the burrow-bearing formation (in which case it must be older than the fossils) or cuts through it (in which case it’s younger). The other question is whether the fossils and the rocks they’re found in actually belong to another nearby formation that is thought to be Permian in age. Burrows in Permian rocks would be no surprise at all . By that time reptiles and the ancestors of mammals walked the earth, insects of all kinds flew over it, and armadas of worms had been boring through soft sediments for hundreds of millions of years. Burrows that far into the Precambrian, on the other hand…

The argument is all very geological, and as I repeatedly said, I’m not much of a geologist. Looking at the figures wouldn’t help me decide who to believe at all. I’m rather amused by some of the snark that gets into the text, though. I have this feeling that Pecoits et al. are annoyed. Watch this, for example:

In this case, Gaucher et al. (1) take no notice of the outcrop-scale relationships and instead prefer to show five photographs from just one hand sample that they assigned to fossil site C to discredit the intrusive nature of the granite [figure 1, B to F, in (1)]. We do not want to speculate on the origin of this sample, but we see no evidence that it comes from fossil site C; it is not the ferruginized basal sandstone we previously documented [figure S3C in (2)].

Oh, yeah. “We do not want to speculate,” but we think something’s fishy with your evidence, only we’re too polite to say it in so many words!

Tee-hee. Academia’s version of an online flame war.

***

References:

Gaucher C et al. (2013) Comment on “Bilaterian burrows and grazing behavior at >585 million years ago”. Science 339:906

Pecoits E et al. (2012) Bilaterian burrows and grazing behavior at >585 million years ago. Science 336:1693-1696

Pecoits E et al. (2013) Response to comment on “Bilaterian burrows and grazing behavior at >585 million years ago”. Science 339:906

Is Ediacara really stranded?

Heh, when I wrote a confused post about a paper by Greg Retallack that argues that classic Ediacaran fossils like Dickinsonia come from a terrestrial rather than an underwater environment, I said there’s sure to be responses. And I completely managed to miss the responses in the very same issue of Nature, apparently published online on the same day. *shameface* (I don’t think I got the commentary piece by RSS???)

One of them was actually quite nice to Retallack. L. Paul Knauth’s name doesn’t ring a bell, I suspect he’s the “geologist” out of the “palaeontologist and a geologist” the intro mentions. Of Retallack’s analysis itself, all he has to say is that Precambrian sediments can be very difficult to interpret, and one will need genuine expertise in fossilised soils ‘n’ stuff to evaluate Retallack’s claims. However, Knauth rejoices over the mere fact that there are unorthodox opinions like Retallack’s out in the open. In which he is certainly right – science wouldn’t go anywhere without disagreements.

The other commenter, Shuhai Xiao, is not so kind. (Him I’ve actually heard of; he’s published some seriously interesting stuff about Ediacaran fossils.) His commentary is kind of a polite way of saying “what a load of nonsense”. Like Knauth, he considers the evidence for the terrestrial origin of these rocks ambiguous, but he also emphasises features of the rocks that fairly unambiguously point to a marine environment. Funnily enough, he brings up geology that isn’t totally impenetrable to me as evidence, like a neat photo of Dickinsonia specimens on a slab of rock covered in nice symmetrical-looking ripples (the kind that forms under quiet waves). There’s also the fact that I forgot about when I wrote the other post: Dickinsonia itself is sometimes associated with crawling traces. Whatever that thing was and wherever it lived, it ain’t no lichen.

That’s reassuring in terms of not standing my worldview on its head, but I really wish Xiao had been less vague about some of his points. For instance, “the isotope signatures of carbonate nodules in the Ediacara Member can be accounted for by post-depositional alterations that do not involve pedogenic processes,” he says, with no further explanation and no citations. I’m thus far on Xiao’s side, but that doesn’t turn the above into a good argument…

Oh well. Let the debate rage on 🙂

(As of yet, no citations of Retallack’s paper on Google Scholar. We’ll definitely check back later. If I remember…)

The return of the giant lichens?

Gosh, can someone tell me if this is bullshit or if he has a point? O.o

It’s rather annoying when a paper comes out that basically threatens to turn what you think you know on its head, and you’re simply not equipped to evaluate its claims. This is the case with Retallack (2012). I’m fascinated by early animals, and endlessly bewildered by the strange fossils of the late Precambrian. While I’m aware that Ediacaran fossils have been interpreted as everything from microbial mats through animals to giant protists, I had the impression that the non-animal interpretations of iconic fossils like Dickinsonia, Spriggina, Parvancorina or Charniodiscus have slowly retreated to the fringe in the decades since their discovery.

And now this guy, whose name I’ve heard enough times to pay attention, gets into Nature arguing that the namesake formation of the Ediacaran period actually originated on dry land, and the iconic fossils are preserved in a manner more like plants, fungi or lichens than animals.

The paltry one semester of introductory geoscience I did years ago is nowhere near enough to comment on all the stuff he says about soils and microbial mats and preservation. I feel completely out of my depth, rocking precariously at the mercy of the waves…

Obviously, this assessment of the original Ediacara site doesn’t affect every fossil site from the period. The latest Precambrian reefs of the Nama Group remain marine reefs containing the remains of unknown animals that grew some of the first mineralised skeletons.

My big question at the moment is how Retallack would interpret the preservation of the White Sea assemblage. This contains similar kinds of fossils to the sites he’s reinterpreted as terrestrial. There’s Dickinsonia and several others like it, there’s Parvancorina, there’s Cyclomedusa*. And this is where hundreds of specimens of my Platonic love Kimberella come from, often associated with crawling and feeding traces. That guy moved around and grazed – plants and lichens seldom do such things! So was Kimberella a land animal? That would be the biggest palaeontological sensation of the decade if not the century. Or did dickinsoniids etc. occur both on land and underwater? Or did the White Sea fossils span a wide variety of environments? (I’m not sure about the distribution of the various White Sea fossils relative to each other…)

Oh my. I wonder what will come out of this. Publication in Nature makes it dead certain that any expert who’d vehemently disagree will find the article. Let’s pull out the pop corn and watch…

***

*It’s slightly odd that he seemingly treats Cyclomedusa and other “medusoid” fossils as though most people considered them jellyfish. That may have been their original interpretation, but I thought it was widely discredited now.

***

Reference:Retallack GJ (2012) Ediacaran life on land. Nature advance online publication available 12/12/12, doi:10.1038/nature11777

Of really old maybe-sponges, molecular clocks and common ancestors

If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you probably know that the early evolution of animals is one of my many random interests. You could say it’s my main interest, though that may be less obvious from my posting record so far. Well, knowing that, you could imagine my face when my labmate pointed me to this National Geographic news piece.

It doesn’t surprise me much that the earliest known animal would be like a sponge. Although for what they do, their construction is nothing short of ingenious, sponges are comparatively simple animals. While it’s possible that they weren’t always like that, it appears that their genomes are devoid of lots of the genes other animals have added to the “toolkit” that fashions their complex bodies (Larroux et al., 2008). They also retain morphological features that were probably present in the ancestors of animals and lost in pretty much every other animal lineage alive today. Notably, their food-capturing cells look an awful lot like the cells of choanoflagellates, which are thought to be the closest living relatives of animals and perhaps similar in appearance to our distant ancestors.

What looks positively amazing about the newly described sponge-like thingies, who go by the deceptively Italian-sounding name of Otavia (they’re actually named after the Otavi Group of rock formations in Namibia), is their age. The oldest ones, apparently, are close to 760 million years old, perhaps 180 million years older than the earliest occurrences of the famous and mysterious Ediacaran animals (Narbonne, 2005). (By the way, that difference is about the length of the “age of dinosaurs”!) The news, and Brain et al. (2012), point out that this date also precedes some events that were thought to set the stage for the rise of animals: the giant ice ages known as Snowball Earths, and the rise in atmospheric oxygen levels towards the end of Precambrian times.

We could talk about the significance of that, I suppose, but the issue the whole discovery brought to my mind is, strangely, molecular clocks.

Let’s face it, the Precambrian fossil record of animals is not brilliant. It’s getting better, as more Ediacaran fossils are dug up and analysed with more sophisticated methods, but it still raises as many questions as it answers, and the earliest history of animals is still shrouded in mystery. For one thing, when did animals even evolve? All we know from fossils is that it must have been “before”. If a particular fossil is not only an animal, but member of an identifiable subgroup of animals, it means that the branch separating that subgroup from all other animal lineages must have split by that time. A number of Precambrian animals may be members of groups that are many such splits into the animal family tree, and things that look like the predecessors of those splits are difficult to identify in the fossil record. So where did they come from? Where did it all begin? Kind of hard to say based on the bunch of hard to interpret blobs, fronds and strange fractal bodies that is the Ediacaran biota.

When the fossil record speaks gibberish, people sometimes query another keeper of deep evolutionary history: DNA. Molecular clock methods date splits between lineages by counting differences between their living members. The basic idea is this: if most mutations have no effect on fitness, then most mutations are created equal, with the same chance of fixing themselves in the gene pool. If that is true, then genomes change at roughly constant rates – dependent only on mutation rate – over time. Using that assumption and lineages whose divergence time is known (usually, from good fossil records), you can translate the genetic differences between two or more groups into evolutionary time.

The problem is that real life is not so simple as that. Evolution is not always neutral. The same gene may behave like a clock in one lineage or during one time period and not another. Part of a gene may be a good clock while another part isn’t. Even if all of a gene evolves in a clock-like manner in all lineages under study, there’s no guarantee that the clock will tick at the same rate in all of them. Different genes or parts of a gene can tick at different rates, and this can vary over time. If we’re trying to measure very long times, it can be hard to correctly estimate the amount of change in a gene. There can be error in the fossils used for calibration, or the calibrating lineages may evolve differently from the ones we’re interested in. And so on.

And thus, published estimates for early divergences among animals range from numbers that make reasonable sense with the fossil record (e.g. Peterson et al., 2004), to some that throw another billion years on top of those numbers (see Chapter 11 in Knoll [2003] for an accessible discussion).

The problem, as I see it, is this. With a billion-year margin of error, some of those estimates must be wrong. As Andrew Knoll noted, they all require that animals began much earlier than their fossil record (at least as it was known at the time). How can we trust any of them? Even for the ones that match what we think of the fossil record – well, stopped clocks are accurate twice a day. For a scientist, being accidentally right is no better than being wrong.

I suppose Otavia, if it’s really a sponge-ish creature, fits the Peterson & co. estimates quite neatly. Fairly certain bilaterians like Kimberella are known from the White Sea assemblage of the Ediacaran, somewhat under 560 million years ago (Narbonne, 2005). The origin of bilaterians is somewhere between two and four splits[1] after sponges diverged from other animals. Peterson and colleagues estimated it between 573 and 656 million years ago – so if sponges are indeed a conservative bunch, sponge-like animals must have been around quite a bit earlier, but perhaps >1 billion years ago is really stretching it. 760 million sounds kind of nice, farther back than the Kimberellas and Dickinsonias but not too far.

Kind of. But, seeing as we’ve had to wait this long for a maybe-sponge that old, who’s to say even older animals aren’t hiding in some unexplored fossil bed? Who’s to say that the next “oldest animal” find won’t validate some of the more outlandish estimates?

The other thing I’m wondering about re: Otavia is: is it a sponge (assuming it’s an animal at all), or could it belong to a lineage ancestral to both sponges and other animals? (Were early sponges ancestral to other animals? The idea has been played with in phylogenetic circles…) I guess we’ll never know for certain. I still think it’s worth raising the question. Creatures that might be ancestral to more than one phylum are extremely valuable to evolutionary biologists, but they might be very hard to recognise for what they are. Part of the problem with Ediacaran animals is that many if not most of them lack features associated with living phyla – but that’s exactly what we would expect from creatures that preceded the divergence of those phyla! Given how little, say, a jellyfish and a snail have in common, what on earth would their common ancestors look like? Would they have any fossilisable characteristics at all that could give us a hint as to their family ties?

And I guess I’ll close today’s musings with that question. If I spent more time reading Brain et al. (2012), there’d probably be a lot more to discuss, but after doing lab work all day and spending an extra couple of hours writing this, my brain doesn’t feel up to it 🙂

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[1] You can refer to the rough animal phylogeny in the Nectocaris post for the moment. Being slightly out of the loop in this area, I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the relationships of ctenophores, cnidarians and placozoans, hence my uncertainty. It’s possible that these three all form a single branch with bilaterians on the other side. Or they could represent three different branching events, or anything in between. I really should make an animal phylogeny page, I think, since I keep finding myself wanting to talk about bilaterians and lophotrochozoans and things that don’t make much sense unless you know at least the basics shown in tree I made for Nectocaris

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References:

Brain CK et al. (2012) The first animals: ca. 760-million-year-old sponge-like fossils from Namibia. South African Journal of Science 108:658; doi:10.4102/sajs.v108i1/2.658

Knoll AH (2003) Life on a Young Planet. Princeton University Press.

Larroux C et al. (2008) Genesis and expansion of metazoan transcription factor gene classes. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25:980-996

Narbonne GM (2005) The Ediacara biota: Neoproterozoic origin of animals and their ecosystems. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 33:421-442

Peterson KJ et al. (2004) Estimating metazoan divergence times with a molecular clock. PNAS 101:6536-6541