Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #02 – The Paleodictyon Problem

Paleodictyon is the name for a net-like pattern found in the marine fossil record, starting in the Late Precambrian/Early Cambrian (~541 mya). Formed from thin tubes in seafloor sediment, each element of the mesh is around 1-3cm in diameter (0.4-1.1″), with entire networks covering areas of up to a square meter (10.7ft²). Some forms also have vertical tubes connecting the mesh to the surface.

And nobody knows what it is.

These patterns have even been found on the modern day seafloor at mid-ocean ridges. Samples have been taken, DNA tests have been performed… and nothing conclusive has yet been found.

Whatever makes these patterns is alive today, but we still don’t know what it is!

There are two main hypotheses about the mysterious identity of the mesh-maker. It might be some sort of small worm-like animal excavating burrows, engineering water flow through the tubes to collect food. Or the whole mesh might be the body imprint of a single creature – either a sponge or a giant foraminiferan.

Hopefully one day somebody will finally catch the Paleodictyon culprit in the act.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries #01

Welcome to Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month!

There’s a lot of things we now know about the distant past that seemed impossible only a few decades ago – discovering the colors of fossilized animals, fragments of collagen in dinosaur bones, and even finding near-complete remains of previously enigmatic animals like Deinocheirus.

But there’s also still a lot of things we don’t know. The fossil record is spotty and very incomplete, and even as we answer some questions others remain frustratingly unanswered.

So, every weekday during March I’ll be featuring a different paleontological mystery. Starting with…

Ptransitional Pterosaurs

We don’t really know where pterosaurs came from.

They appeared suddenly in the Late Triassic (~228 mya) with their anatomy already fully adapted for flight, and there are no traces of transitional forms before that point.

We at least know they were members of the archosaurs, and the sister group to dinosaurs, and their closest known relative seems to have been a small hopping creature named Scleromochlus. The complete lack of any other potential ancestors suggests that proto-pterosaurs must have evolved incredibly rapidly in an environment that just didn’t favor fossilizing their tiny fragile remains.

We might get lucky one day and finally find a pterosaur equivalent of Archaeopteryx, but for now all we have are hypothetical ideas of what such animals might have looked like.