The Ediacaran fossils: a big surprise

English: Photograph showing the 'golden spike'...

Edicara sandstones in the Flinders Ranges of  South Australia (credit: Wikipedia).

The first macroscopic life forms were the enigmatic bag-like and quilted fossils in sedimentary rocks dating back to 635 Ma in Australia, eastern Canada and NW Europe. They are grouped as the Ediacaran Fauna named after the Ediacara Hills in South Australia where they are most common and diverse. Generally they are not body fossils but impressions of soft-bodied organisms, often in sandstones rather than muds. Some are believed to be animals that absorbed nutrients through their skin, whereas others are subjects of speculation. One thing seems clear; these first metazoans arose because of some kind of trigger provided by the global glacial conditions that preceded their appearance. It has always been assumed that, whatever they were, Ediacaran organisms lived on the sea floor, probably in shallow water. New sedimentological evidence found in the type locality by Gregory Retallack of the University of Oregon seems set to force a complete rethink about these hugely important life forms (Retallack, G.J 2012. Ediacaran life on land. Nature (online), doi:10.1038/nature11777). So momentous are his conclusions that they form the subject of a Nature editorial in the 13 December 2012 issue.

Retallack, a specialist on ancient soils of the Precambrian, examined reddish facies of the Ediacara Member of the Rawnsley Quartzite of South Australia, whose previous interpretation have a somewhat odd background. Originally regarded as non-marine, before their fossils were discovered, when traces of jellyfish-like organisms turned up this view was reversed to marine, the red coloration being ascribed to deep Cretaceous weathering. A range of features, such as clasts of red facies in grey Ediacaran rocks, the presence of feldspar in the red facies – unlikely to have survived deep weathering – bedding surfaces with textures very like those formed by subaerial biofilms, and desiccation cracks, suggest to Retallack that the red facies represents palaeosols in the sedimentary sequence. Moreover, some features indicate a land surface prone to freezing from time to time. The key observation is that this facies contains Ediacaran trace fossils representing many of the forms previously regarded as marine animals of some kind, including Spriggina, Dickinsonia and Charnia  on which most palaeontologists would bet good money that they were animals, albeit enigmatic ones.

English: Cropped and digitally remastered vers...

Specimen of Edicaran Dickinsonia (credit: Wikipedia)

If Retallack’s sedimentological observations are confirmed then organisms found in the palaeosols cannot have been animals but perhaps akin to lichens or colonial microbes, and survived freezing conditions. As they occur in other facies more likely to be subaqueous, then they were ‘at home’ in a variety of ecosystems. As the Nature editorial reminds us, from the near-certainty that early macroscopic life was marine there is a chance that views will have to revert to a terrestrial emergence first suggested in the 1950s by Jane Grey. Uncomfortable times lie ahead for the palaeontological world.

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2 responses to “The Ediacaran fossils: a big surprise

  1. Once Retallacks’ paper appeared in print (Nature 3 January 2013), critical comment did appear in Nature’s News and Views from Shuhai Xiao and Paul Knauth, the first attempting to refute the idea of a a terrestrial origin for the trace fossils, the other concluding ‘… until the forensic evidence for Ediacaran habitats becomes strongly compelling one way or the other, let multiple hypotheses thrive!’

  2. Does Retallack have anything to say about the paleoenvironmental interpretation of other rock formations around the world that contain a similar biota (eg Newfoundland, Charnwood etc)?

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