Princeton scientists say they may have discovered the oldest fossils of animal bodies; sponge-like creatures that were living in ocean reefs 650 million years ago. The shelly fossils, found beneath a 635 million-year-old glacial deposit in South Australia, would represent the earliest evidence of animal body forms in the current fossil record by at least 70 million years.

The oldest known fossils of hard-bodied animals were from two reef-dwelling organisms that lived about 550 million years ago; Namacalathus, discovered in 2000 by John Grotzinger's group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cloudina, found in 1972 by Gerard Germs of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.  There are (controversial) fossils of soft-bodied animals that date to the latter part of the Ediacaran period between 577 and 542 million years ago. These fossils were first observed in the 1940s by Australian geologist Reginald Sprigg, and the oldest evidence to date of undisputed Ediacaran animals -- organisms called Kimberella -- was found in sediment about 555 million years old in Australia and Russia.

Princeton geosciences professor Adam Maloof and graduate student Catherine Rose happened upon the new fossils while working on a project focused on the severe ice age that marked the end of the Cryogenian period 635 million years ago. Their findings provide the first direct evidence that animal life existed before, and probably survived, the severe "snowball Earth" event known as the Marinoan glaciation that left much of the globe covered in ice at the end of the Cryogenian. 

"We were accustomed to finding rocks with embedded mud chips, and at first this is what we thought we were seeing," Maloof said. "But then we noticed these repeated shapes that we were finding everywhere -- wishbones, rings, perforated slabs and anvils. By the second year, we realized we had stumbled upon some sort of organism, and we decided to analyze the fossils. No one was expecting that we would find animals that lived before the ice age, and since animals probably did not evolve twice, we are suddenly confronted with the question of how some relative of these reef-dwelling animals survived the 'snowball Earth."

The composition and location of the fossils meant they could not be removed from surrounding rock using conventional techniques, nor could they be imaged using X-ray scanning techniques because X-rays are only able to distinguish between materials with different densities, which is why they can be used to image bones that are inside the human body or buried within a rock. The most ancient skeletal fossils are made of calcite, not bone, and calcite is the same material that makes up the rock matrix in which they are embedded. 

Maloof, Rose and their collaborators instead teamed up with professionals at Situ Studio, a Brooklyn-based design and digital fabrication studio, to create three-dimensional digital models of two individual fossils that were embedded in the surrounding rock.  The team members shaved off 50 microns of sample at a time, about half the width of a human hair, and photographed the polished rock surface each time. The team ground and imaged nearly 500 slices of the rock.

Princeton geoscientist Adam Maloof holds a rock from South Australia that may contain the oldest fossils of animal bodies ever discovered. The fossils, visible here as red shapes, suggest that sponge-like animals were in existence about 650 million years ago.  Credit: Courtesy of Adam Maloof

Using software techniques developed specifically for this project, the researchers then "stacked" the outlines on top of one another to create a complete three-dimensional model of the creature. The technique is similar to the way in which CAT scan technology combines a series of two-dimensional X-rays to create a three-dimensional image of the inside of the body. The technique that was developed served to automate the process -- turning a prohibitively time-consuming task into an efficient and effective method for fossil reconstruction. 

When they began the digital reconstruction process, the shape of some of the two-dimensional slices made the researchers suspect they might be dealing with the previously discovered Namacalathus, a goblet-shaped creature featuring a long body stalk topped with a hollow ball. But their model revealed irregularly shaped, centimeter-scale animals with a network of internal canals.

A Princeton-led team of researchers, in conjunction with experts at Situ Studio, used a serial grinding and imaging process to analyze hundreds of slices through a single fossil. Special computer techniques were then used to create a digital reconstruction of the specimen, producing a three-dimensional model of the roughly 650 million-year-old creature.   Credit: Courtesy of Maloof lab/Situ Studio

These critters looked nothing like Namacalathus

After considering a variety of alternatives, the researchers decided that the fossil organisms most closely resembled sponges -- simple filter-feeding animals that extract food from water as it flows through specialized body channels. Previously, the oldest known undisputed fossilized sponges were about 520 million years old, dating to the Cambrian Period.

But evidence has suggested that sponges appeared on the scene much earlier in Earth history. For example, scientists have conducted detailed analyses of genetic material in a wide range of organisms to create "molecular clocks" that suggest how long ago a given species evolved. According to these clocks, sponges existed millions of years before the Cambrian. This has been supported by the relatively recent discovery of lipid biomarkers -- essentially, traces of recalcitrant fats that resist degradation over millions of years -- in sedimentary rocks from Oman of nearly the same age as those studied by the Maloof group in Australia.

"For many years the great Marinoan ice age has formed a hard floor to the fossil record of animals, even though most molecular clocks suggest a deeper history, at least for sponges," said evolutionary biologist Andrew Knoll of Harvard University, who was not part of the research team." Adam and his students are digging deeper and finding that there is much to catch our attention in pre-glacial carbonate rocks … . I'm convinced that the structures Adam's group have found are not simply shards of material, formed and deposited by purely physical processes. That said, it isn't easy to be sure what they are. Adam's group has carefully spelled out the biological alternatives and built a reasonable case for interpreting the structures as sponge-like animals. At the very least, this should drive paleontologists back to the field to seek similar or better evidence in other rocks of comparable age."

Interview with Adam Maloof, assistant professor of geosciences, on recent fossil findings by Princeton University scientists that could be evidence of the oldest animals ever found.  Video: Kitta MacPherson (2010) Princeton University Office of Communications

In future research, Maloof and his collaborators intend to refine the three-dimensional digital reconstruction technique to automate and increase the speed of the process. This could have a significant impact on paleontology, enabling the analysis of myriad early fossils that are currently inaccessible to the tools of modern science.

In addition to Maloof and Rose, Princeton researchers on the team included geosciences professor Frederik Simons, former postdoctoral fellow Claire Calmet, Nan Yao, the director of the Imaging and Analysis Center in the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM), and PRISM senior research specialist Gerald Poirier. The team also included Douglas Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution and Samuels, Robert Beach, Basar Girit, Wesley Rozen, Sigfus Briedfjord and Aleksey Lukyanov of Situ Studio. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.