Bigging-up the Ediacaran

Cropped and digitally remastered version of an...

A distinctive Ediacaran fossil. Image via Wikipedia

The biota dominated by large, indistinct and generally flabby creatures named together with the eponymous Period (635-542 Ma) from their type occurrence in late Neoproterozoic sediments of the Ediacara Hills of South Australia is made up of imprints of a strange bunch of organisms – bags; discs; donut-shapes and the enigmatic quilted organisms that likely subsisted by osmotically drawing nutrients from ocean water through their skins – together with others that have forms suggestive of extant groups – cnidarians; bilaterian embryos; mollusc-like and segmented forms.  The Avalon fauna of Newfoundland, discovered after those of Charnwood Forest, UK and the Ediacara Hills, added other life forms, including the fractal-like rangeomorphs from earlier (~579 Ma) times in the Ediacaran. Recently, the oldest known (630-551 Ma) members of the Ediacaran biota were presented (Yuan, X. et al. 2011. An early Ediacaran assemblage of macroscopic and morphologically differentiated eukaryotes. Nature, v. 470 , p. 390-393). Unlike the better known organisms that were preserved against all odds in quite coarse sand- and siltstones, the host rocks in South China are a more familiar lagerstätten of black shales in which fossils take the form of carbonaceous films. These preserve considerable detail and are unlike the later Ediacaran organisms. Many resemble marine algae (seaweeds), some very like kelp, in their living positions and probably represent quite sunlit seabed habitats(the authors also suggest that some rare forms may be bilaterian worms and cnidarians). Dating of this Lantian assemblage stems from several ash beds and correlation of C-isotope anomalies with other Ediacaran sections.

From their age, the Lantian fossils are of organisms that evolved shortly after the Marinoan (635 Ma) ‘Snowball Earth’ episode, whereas the faunas of Newfoundland and Australia followed the less prominent Gaskiers glacial epoch (582 Ma). So they represent another evolutionary surge presaged by global ice cover and massive stress for all terrestrial life. If the Lantian organisms were algae, then photosynthesising eukaryotes may have been the first large multicelled organisms. All eukaryotes – autotrophs and heterotrophs – are obliged to live in oxygenated conditions, so at least shallow water after the Marinoan glacial event must have been such, although preservation of the Lantian fossils does indicate anoxic conditions during burial. The association of evolutionary bursts with two ‘Snowball Earth’ periods ought to point palaeobiologists to the sedimentary sequences that followed the earliest such event, the Sturtian (~720 Ma), which shows similar violent swings in C-isotopes that indicate surges and declines in burial of organic matter. So far only sponge-like fossils have been found from the Cryogenian Period of the Neoproterozoic that encompasses the Sturtian and Marinoan glacial episodes (Maloof, C. & 8 others 2010. Possible animal-body fossils in pre-Marinoan limestones from South Australia. Nature Geoscience, v. 3, p. 653-659).

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