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‘Holy Grail’ fossil mystery cracked – 558 million-year-old fat reveals earliest known animal

Organic kept Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.

(Australian National University)

It may not be Indiana Jones who found it, but the “Holy Grail” (of fossils) are discovered.

A previously non-classified creature that lived more than 500 million years ago, is considered the “Holy Grail of paleontology,” has finally been identified, thanks to fossil fat.

The creature, known as Dickinsonia, was previously found in the north-west of Russia near the White Sea. It was not classified until the other recently found Dickinsonia fossils showed the presence of organic tissue, allowing researchers to identify molecules of cholesterol, described as a “hallmark” of animals.

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“The fossil fat molecules that we have found evidence that animals were large and abundant 558 million years ago, millions of years earlier than previously thought,” said Professor Jochen Brocks of the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, in a statement.

Brocks added: “Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years about what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils from the Edicaran Biota were: giant single-celled amoebas, lichen, failed experiments of evolution or the oldest animals on Earth. The fossil fat now confirms Dickinsonia as the oldest known fossil animal, the solving of a decades-old mystery that is the Holy Grail of paleontology.”

Dickinsonia came from a period known as the Ediacaran, which spanned approximately 94 million years after the end of the Cryogenian Period at the beginning of the Cambrian Period 541 Mya. Just as other creatures to life during the period, it had a lack of physical characteristics, such as the limbs, organs or even a discernable head.

Her body measured about 5 metres in length and is oval in shape with rib-like segments running along her body,” the researchers noted in the statement.

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The Dickinsonia is perhaps the earliest known animal, but the topic is still open for discussion, according to LiveScience.

There is evidence that indicates the existence of sponges 635 million years ago, although the oldest fossilized sponge is only 520 million years old. According to a study done last year, jellyfish can be older, but that research has been used genetic analysis, and no fossil evidence.

The oldest form of life on Earth are bacteria, which existed on the planet for about 3.95 billion years ago.

“The problem we had to overcome was the finding of Dickinsonia fossils preserved some organic substance,” said ANU phd student Ilya Bobrovskiy, who discovered that the Dickinsonia.

“Most of the rocks in which the fossils from the Ediacara Hills in Australia have endured a lot of heat, a lot of pressure, and then they were weathered after that – these are the stones that palaeontologists studied for many decades, which explained why they were stuck on the question of Dickinsonia’ s true identity,” he added.

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Bobrovskiy found the fossils in the middle of the White cliffs of about 200 to 330 feet high.

As soon as Bobrovskiy showed the findings to Brocks, he immediately realized what he saw, and noted that she is a ‘game changer’ and that he ” immediately saw the significance.”

The findings were published in the scientific journal Science.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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