Palaeobiologists interested in the origin of animals have generally focussed on sedimentary rocks from southern China: specifically those of the 635 to 550 Ma Doushantuo Formation. Phosphorus-rich nodules in those marine sediments have yielded tiny spheroids whose structure suggests that they are fossil embryos of some unspecified eukaryote. The Doushantuo Formation lies on top of rocks associated with the Marinoan episode of global glaciation during the Neoproterozoic; a feature which suggested that the evolutionary leap from single- to multi-celled eukaryotes was associated with environmental changes associated with Snowball Earth events. In a forthcoming issue of Current Biology that view will be challenged and the origin of multicellular life pushed back to around 1 billion years ago (Strother, P.K. et al. 2021. A possible billion-year-old holozoan with differentiated multicellularity. Current Biology, v. 31, p. 1-8; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.051). Spherical fossils of that age have been teased out of phosphatic nodules deposited in lacustrine sediments from the lower part of the Mesoproterozoic Torridonian Group of the Northwest Highlands of Scotland.
The internal structure of the fossils has been preserved in exquisite detail. Not only are cells packed together in their interiors, but some reveal an outer layer of larger sausage-shaped cells. So, cell differentiation had taken place in the original organisms, whereas such features are not visible in the Doushantuo ‘embryos’. A few of the central cells show dark, organic spots that may be remains of theirnucleii. Whatever these multicellular spheres may have developed into, the morphology of the Torridonian fossils is consistent with a transition from single-celled holozoans to the dominant metazoans of the Phanerozoic; i.e. the stem of later animals. The younger, Chinese fossils that are reputed to be embryos cannot be distinguished from multicellular algae (see: Excitement over early animals dampened, January 2012)
Interestingly, the Torridonian Group is exclusively terrestrial in origin, being dominated by sediments deposited in the alluvial plains of huge braided streams that eventually buried a rugged landscape eroded from Archaean high-grade metamorphic rocks. Thus the environment would have been continually in contact with the atmosphere and thus oxygen that is vital for eukaryote life forms. The age of the fossils also rings a bell: a molecular clock based on the genomics of all groups of animals alive today hints at around 900-1000 Ma for the emergence of the basic body plan. Because its host rocks are about that age, could Bicellum brazier be the Common Ancestor of all modern animals? That would be a nice tribute to the second author, Martin Brazier (deceased) of Oxford University, who sought signs of the most ancient life for much of his career.
The northwest of Scotland has been a magnet to geologists for more than a century. It is easily accessed, has magnificent scenery and some of the world’s most complex geology. The oldest and structurally most tortuous rocks in Europe – the Lewisian Gneiss Complex – which span crustal depths from its top to bottom, dominate much of the coast. These are unconformably overlain by a sequence of mainly terrestrial sediments of Meso- to Neoproterozoic age – the Torridonian Supergroup – laid down by river systems at the edge of the former continent of Laurentia. They form a series of relic hills resting on a rugged landscape carved into the much older Lewisian. In turn they are capped by a sequence of Cambrian to Lower Ordovician shallow-marine sediments. A more continuous range of hills no more than 20 km eastward of the coast hosts the famous Moine Thrust Belt in which the entire stratigraphy of the region was mangled between 450 and 430 million years ago when the elongated microcontinent of Avalonia collided with and accreted to Laurentia. Exposures are the best in Britain and, because of the superb geology, probably every geologist who graduated in that country visited the area, along with many international geotourists. The more complex parts of this relatively small area have been mapped and repeatedly examined at scales larger than 1:10,000; its geology is probably the best described on Earth. Yet, it continues to throw up dramatic conclusions. However, the structurally and sedimentologically simple Torridonian was thought to have been done and dusted decades ago, with a few oddities that remained unresolved until recently.
Geologists often assume that the continents were first colonised by plants, insects then vertebrates beginning in the Ordovician Period with preservation of spores very like those of the liverworts, which incidentally can only be removed from gravel driveways by the use of acetic acid, glyphosate, pycloram and flamethrowers having no lasting effect. The most intractable of all organisms found on the land surface today are prokaryotic (nucleus-free cells) cyanobacteria whose biofilms cement desert varnish (see Desert varnish, May 2008 in Subjects: GIS and Remote Sensing). Cyanobacteria have long been suspected to have been the first life forms to adopt a terrestrial habit, and their cells have been discovered in the now-famous Neoproterozoic lagerstätten in the Doushantuo Formation of China (see The earliest lichens, May 2005 in Subjects: Geobiology, palaeontology, and evolution) The oldest un-metamorphosed sediments in Britain, the Torridonian redbeds that form the magnificent scenery of north-western Scotland, now push back the date of the earliest eukaryotic (cells with nuclei) terrestrial life, of which we are one form, half a billion years before the Doushanto cyanobacteria (Strother, P.K. et al. 2011. Earth’s earliest non-marine eukaryotes. Nature, v. 473, p. 505-509). The Torridonian is one of the thickest (~12 km) terrestrial sequences on the planet, and spans a time range of around 200 Ma (1.2 to 1 Ga). It is a repository of almost the entire range of humid continental sedimentary environments: colluvial fan; bajada; alluvial; deltaic and lacustrine build-ups. Grey lake-bed mudstones and phosphate nodules in the Torridonian yield small organic fossils lumped in the sack-term acritarchs. Similar bodies, whose affinities are diverse and generally obscure, have been reported from marine sediments as old as 3.2 Ga. The fascination of those from the Torridonian, other than their terrestrial association, is that some include aggregates of spherical cells with tantalising suggestions of central nuclei and, as a whole assemblage, exhibit a range of morphologies far beyond that of nucleus-free prokaryotes and the signature of cytoskeletal filaments that form a ‘scaffold’ for eukaryote cells. Worth noting is that one of the authors is Martin Brasier of Oxford University, whose meticulous bio-morphological skills in microscopy has made him one of the foremost critics of speculation on Precambrian microfossils (see Doubt cast on earliest bacterial fossils April 2003 in Subjects: Geobiology, palaeontology, and evolution). The authors opine that the ecological diversity of freshwater and land systems, and the physico-chemical stress associated with repeated wetting and desiccation compared with the marine domain may have been instrumental in origination of the Eucarya, which should give the Torridonian a scientific reputation that extends beyond these shores.