Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Reconstructions show how some of the earliest animals lived -- and died

Date:
August 11, 2014
Source:
University of Cambridge
Summary:
A bizarre group of uniquely shaped organisms known as rangeomorphs may have been some of the earliest animals to appear on Earth, uniquely suited to ocean conditions 575 million years ago. A new model has resolved many of the mysteries around the structure, evolution and extinction of these 'proto animals.'

Palaeontological reconstruction of rangeomorph fronds from the Ediacaran Period (635-541 million years ago) built using computer models of rangeomorph growth and development.
Credit: Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill

New three-dimensional reconstructions show how some of the earliest animals on Earth developed, and provide some answers as to why they went extinct.

Related Articles


A bizarre group of uniquely-shaped organisms known as rangeomorphs may have been some of the earliest animals to appear on Earth, uniquely suited to ocean conditions 575 million years ago.

A new model devised by researchers at the University of Cambridge has resolved many of the mysteries around the structure, evolution and extinction of these 'proto animals'. The findings are reported today (11 August) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rangeomorphs were some of the earliest large organisms on Earth, existing during a time when most other forms of life were microscopic in size. Most rangeomorphs were about 10 centimetres high, although some were up to two metres in height.

These creatures were ocean dwellers which lived during the Ediacaran period, between 635 and 541 million years ago. Their bodies were made up of soft branches, each with many smaller side branches, forming a geometric shape known as a fractal, which can be seen in many familiar branching shapes such as fern leaves and even river networks.

Rangeomorphs were unlike any modern organism, which has made it difficult to determine how they fed, grew or reproduced, and therefore difficult to link them to any particular modern group. However, despite the fact that they looked like plants, evidence points to the fact that rangeomorphs were actually some of the earliest animals.

"We know that rangeomorphs lived too deep in the ocean for them to get their energy through photosynthesis as plants do," said Dr Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, who led the research. "It's more likely that they absorbed nutrients directly from the sea water through the surface of their body. It would be difficult in the modern world for such large animals to survive only on dissolved nutrients."

"The oceans during the Ediacaran period were more like a weak soup -- full of nutrients such as organic carbon, whereas today suspended food particles are swiftly harvested by a myriad of animals," said co-author Professor Simon Conway Morris.

Starting 541 million years ago, the conditions in the oceans changed quickly with the start of the Cambrian Explosion -- a period of rapid evolution when most major animal groups first emerge in the fossil record and competition for nutrients increased dramatically.

Rangeomorphs have often been considered a 'failed experiment' of evolution as they died out so quickly once the Cambrian Explosion began in earnest, but this new analysis shows just how successful they once were.

Rangeomorphs almost completely filled the space surrounding them, with a massive total surface area. This made them very efficient feeders that were able to extract the maximum amount of nutrients from the ocean water.

"These creatures were remarkably well-adapted to their environment, as the oceans at the time were high in nutrients and low in competition," said Dr Hoyal Cuthill. "Mathematically speaking, they filled their space in a nearly perfect way."

Dr Hoyal Cuthill examined rangeomorph fossils from a number of locations worldwide, and used them to make the first computer reconstructions of the development and three-dimensional structure of these organisms, showing just how well-suited they were to their Ediacaran environment.

As the Cambrian Explosion began however, the rangeomorphs became 'sitting ducks', as they had no known means of defence from predators which were starting to evolve, and the changing chemical composition of the ocean meant that they could no longer get the nutrients they required to feed.

"As the Cambrian began, these Ediacaran specialists could no longer survive, and nothing quite like them has been seen again," said Dr Hoyal Cuthill.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Cambridge. The original story is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jennifer F. Hoyal Cuthill and Simon Conway Morris. Fractal branching organizations of Ediacaran rangeomorph fronds reveal a lost Proterozoic body plan. PNAS, August 11, 2014 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408542111

Cite This Page:

University of Cambridge. "Reconstructions show how some of the earliest animals lived -- and died." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 August 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140811170201.htm>.
University of Cambridge. (2014, August 11). Reconstructions show how some of the earliest animals lived -- and died. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 26, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140811170201.htm
University of Cambridge. "Reconstructions show how some of the earliest animals lived -- and died." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140811170201.htm (accessed October 26, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Deep Sea 'mushroom' Could Be Early Branch on Tree of Life

Deep Sea 'mushroom' Could Be Early Branch on Tree of Life

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 24, 2014) Miniature deep sea animals discovered off the Australian coast almost three decades ago are puzzling scientists, who say the organisms have proved impossible to categorise. Academics at the Natural History of Denmark have appealed to the world scientific community for help, saying that further information on Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides could answer key evolutionary questions. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Black Bear Cub Goes Sunday Shopping

Black Bear Cub Goes Sunday Shopping

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Oct. 23, 2014) Price check on honey? Bear cub startles Oregon drugstore shoppers. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dances With Wolves in China's Wild West

Dances With Wolves in China's Wild West

AFP (Oct. 23, 2014) One man is on a mission to boost the population of wolves in China's violence-wracked far west. The animal - symbol of the Uighur minority there - is under threat with a massive human resettlement program in the region. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Breakfast Debate: To Eat Or Not To Eat?

Breakfast Debate: To Eat Or Not To Eat?

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) Conflicting studies published in the same week re-ignited the debate over whether we should be eating breakfast. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins