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A doctoral student from Australian National University (ANU), Ilya Bobrovskiy, discovered a fossil of a enigmatic organism called Dickinsonia very well preserved in a remote area near the White Sea in northwestern Russia.
The tissue in these remains still contained molecules of cholesterol, a type of fat that is a hallmark of animal life.
A team of scientists led by the ANU has concluded, thanks to the analysis of these fat molecules, that this specimen is the first confirmed animal in the geological recordsince he lived on Earth ago 558 million years.
The principal investigator of the study that publishes the journal Science, Associate Professor Jochen Brocks, explains that Cambrian explosion it happened when complex animals and other macroscopic organisms, such as mollusks, worms, arthropods, and sponges, began to dominate the fossil record.
"The fossil fat molecules that we have found show that animals were already large and abundant 558 million years ago, much earlier than previously thought," he adds.
This organism was part of the Ediacara biota, formed by the first living beings that populated the Earth 20 million years before the Cambrian explosion of animal life.
Dickinsonia: the 'Holy Grail' of paleontology
Scientists have been researching Dickinsonia and other strange fossils from the Ediacaran biota for more than 75 years. The fossil fat now confirms Dickinsonia as the oldest known animal, solving a decades-old mystery that has been the "Holy Grail" of paleontology. "
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Its discoverer, Bobrovskiy, points out that the team developed a new approach to study these fossils, which hold the key between the old world dominated by bacteria and the world of large animals that emerged ago 540 million years during the Cambrian explosion. "The problem we had to overcome was finding Dickinsonia fossils that had retained some organic matter," says the scientist.
Most of the rocks that contain these fossils, such as those in the Ediacara Hills in Australia, have endured a lot of heat, pressure and erosion. Paleontologists have been studying them for decades, which explains why they were stuck in the true identity of Dickinsonia.
Bobrovskiy climbed a cliff to find the remains
Paleontologists normally study the structure of fossils, but Bobrovskiy extracted and analyzed the molecules inside. "I took a helicopter to get to this remote part of the world, home to bears and mosquitoes, where I was able to find Dickinsonia fossils with organic matter still intact," he says.
These fossils were in the middle of the cliffs of the White Sea that are between 60 and 100 meters high. "I had to hang from the edge of a cliff with ropes and excavate huge blocks of sandstone, throw them, wash the stone and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was looking for," explains Bobrovskiy.
For Brocks, being able to study the molecules of these ancient organisms is revolutionary. “When Ilya showed me the results, I just couldn't believe it. But I also immediately understood its importance, "he says.
ANU led the research in collaboration with scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry and the University of Bremen in Germany.
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