Excitement over early animals dampened

Alga (Volvox sp.)

Volvox cyst. Image via Wikipedia

The Neoproterozoic lagerstätte in the Doushantuo Formation in the south of China was until recently thought to be a source of astonishing information about Earth’s earliest animals (See Ancestral animal? in EPN August 2004) that preceded the appearance of those with hard parts at the start of the Phanerozoic.  It contains well-preserved fossils that resemble embryos, algae, acritarchs, and small bilaterians. Dated at between 580 to 600 Ma(See Age range of early fossil treasure trove  in EPN February 2005), the Doushantuo directly overlies cap carbonates representing the emergence of Earth’s climate from a Snowball epoch represented by a tillite beneath the carbonate sequence. A detailed examination using synchrotron X-ray tomography of the putative animal embryos does show clear signs of cell doubling or palintomy (Huldtgren, T. et al. 2011. Fossilized nucluei and germination structures identify Ediacaran ‘animal embryos’ as encysting protists. Science. V. 334, p. 1696-1699) but also internal cell features most likely to be nuclei, but which have no counterparts in animal embryos. The organisms which the fossils most resemble are indeed eukaryotes, but of a kind separate from animals known as Holozoa. Yet there are striking resemblances with eukaryotes more distant from animals, such as the modern Volvox, a type of alga (Butterfield, N.J. 2011. Terminal developments in Ediacaran embryology. Science. V. 334, p. 1655-1656), that developed from an ancestor further back in time than the separation of metazoan animals from holozoans.

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