An Ancient Sea Sponge May Rewrite History
In the Mackenzie Mountains, a mountain range in Canada’s remote northwest area, sits the calcified remnants of an ancient reef system, built by bacteria and pushed up to form part of the mountain range 890 million years ago.
Elizabeth Turner, a professor at Laurentian University in Ontario, was exploring the reef some two decades ago when she decided to collect samples, which, when examined under a microscope, revealed branch-like structures (pictured above) with a striking resemblance to fossilized sea sponges.
Why it’s big:
Turner published her findings in the journal Nature, and says the tiny putative sponges (measuring just a few millimeters to a centimeter across) would predate the next-oldest undisputed sponge fossil by around 350 million years, making it the earliest record of animal life ever found.
According to Turner, if she’s right about the interpretation of the samples (i.e., that they’re indeed sponges), the earliest animals on Earth may not have had the oxygen requirements scientists have generally presumed, tantalizing researchers with the possibility of hunting for evolutionary signs that may survive in sponges today.
It will take a while to completely validate Turner’s claims, and she has promised to take her time. She wouldn’t be the first scientist to find an ancient “sponge” and mistakenly cry life.