Near-pristine traces of life before Earth’s surface became oxidising

Only around 2.2 Ga did the atmosphere contain sufficient oxygen to oxidise iron(II) to iron(III) and leave its trace in red soils and terrestrial sedimentary rocks. That opened the way for the emergence and evolution of the Eucaryan domain of organisms, most of which depend on oxygen. For their predecessors, the prokaryote Bacteria and Archaea, oxygen would have been intensely toxic, especially for those which used anoxygenic forms of metabolism. Almost certainly oxygen was released for more than a billion years before the Great Oxidation Event, by blue-green bacteria, only to be mopped up by oxidation of abundant iron(II) ions dissolved in sea water. Getting an idea of the diversity of pre-2.2 Ga life is possible by examining the organic chemicals produced when they decayed under anoxic conditions, i.e. from oil and kerogen. Unfortunately, the great age of their host rocks has resulted in many Precambrian sediments having been heated and metamorphosed, so that different biomarkers break down into less distinctive compounds. There are, however, sediments that may have remained more or less unaffected, and one sequence in the Canadian Shield has yielded astonishing results (Dutkiewicz, A. et al. 2006. Biomarkers from Huronian oil-bearing inclusions: An uncontaminated record of life before the Great Oxidation Event. Geology, v. 34, p. 437-440).

The sediments are conglomerates rich in uranium, having been deposited under reducing conditions that helps precipitate uranium from solution, and have been mined extensively in the Elliot Lake area of Ontario. Oil seems to have entered fluid inclusions in quartz that cemented the conglomerates, shortly after the conglomerates were deposited at about 2.45 Ga. The oil contains a host of complex organic compounds that have never been degraded by heating. Some can be linked to blue-green bacteria, which undoubtedly created of oxygen continuously. That they gave rise locally to favourable conditions for oxygen-using organisms is clear from other biomarkers. Those are steranes that are derived by breakdown of sterols, which in turn are only known to be created by the enzymes exclusive to Eucaryan metabolism. Steranes have been found in even older sediments, but they were back shales that could easily have been contaminated by much younger organic materials seeping through the host rock. Oil in fluid inclusion within diagenetic minerals is far less likely to have been contaminated, so the Elliot Lake samples define a minimum age for the emergence of the Eucarya far earlier than the appearance of actual microfossils that show the distinctive cell nucleus that defines the domain Eukarya.

Precambrian bonanza for palaeoembryologists

Signs of relatedness among groups of organisms often show up well during their early growth as embryos, so their fossils in very old rocks are of great use in establishing when different groups emerged (see Ancient baby penis worm hits the news in EPN February 2004 issue). A deposit containing possible embryos of deutorostomes (see Age range of early fossil treasure trove, in EPN March 2005 issue), in which the first orifice to emerge during embryonic development is the anus, is of considerable interest. Nowadays, the group contains animals with mirror symmetry (bilaterians), including the vertebrates. First reports of fossil embryos from the 580 Ma old Doushantuo Formation of southern China in 2004 drew fire from palaeontologists who preferred to believe that the smooth almost spherical objects, like the fictitious life forms in a supposedly Martian meteorite, were probably oolith-like mineral growths. Undeterred, their finders have extracted yet more from the exposures (Chen, J-Y. and 12 others 2006. Phosphatized polar lobe-forming embryos from the Precambrian of southwest China. Science, v. 312, p. 1644-1646). They demonstrate clearly that the objects do show lobes in an early stage of development that break the embryos initial symmetry so that different kinds of tissue can develop to form adults. The find matches well with evidence from the genes of modern bilaterians that the basic branching of the Animal Kingdom occurred well before the Cambrian Explosion of shelly fossils. Since more or less all modern phyla are represented by Cambrian fossils, that is not surprising.

Pocket sauropods

The largest animals to roam the land were vegetarian dinosaurs of the sauropod group. The biggest reached a length of more than 30 metres, and were commensurately tall. These giants permeate our perception of Mesozoic life on the continents, along with their monster predators. Now, children made nervous by such titanic creatures (and I was definitely one of them) can be reassured that there were ones that were not so crushingly big (Sander, P.M. et al. 2006. Bone histology indicates insular dwarfism in a new Late Jurassic sauropod dinosaur. Nature, v. 441, p. 739-741). A near-complete skeleton of a sauropod that was only 6 metres long turned up in Lower Saxony in Germany, along with other remains suggesting individuals as small as 1.7 m. Europasaurus was first thought to be a juvenile of a much larger species, but Sander et al. developed means of microscopic bone analysis that clearly show fully mature bone growth. In the Late Jurassic central Germany was covered by sea, except for a number of large islands. The most likely explanation for such a tiny species is that it adapted to island life in much the same way as other, more recent mammals did, such as pigmy elephants and hippos on many islands in the Mediterranean and the Indonesian archipelago.

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