The Francevillian Biota

Life seems to have existed on Earth for over 4 billion years, but for much of that time it was primarily microscopic. And although multicellularity is known to have independently evolved multiple times, large complex forms didn’t really get started until around 600 million years ago, with the strange Ediacarans being some of the most famous early examples.

But that may not have been the first time such an evolutionary experiment happened.

A collection of fossils discovered near the city of Franceville in Gabon appear to represent an even earlier example of large multicellular life. Known as the “Francevillian biota” or “Gabonionta”, these fossils are over three times older then the Ediacarans, dating to a staggering 2.1 billion years ago during the Paleoproterozoic Era.

Over 400 specimens have been collected, representing a variety of different forms — including discs with ruffled edges, rods, rounded clusters of blobs, and elongated shapes that are sometimes attached to long “strings of beads” — with the largest reaching lengths of about 17cm (6.5”). Their age places them somewhere around the origin point of the earliest eukaryotes, and they may represent a completely unique kingdom of life unlike anything alive today.

These organisms’ appearance in the fossil record came shortly after the Great Oxygenation Event, suggesting the evolutionary development of large complex bodies is directly linked to the amount of available oxygen for aerobic respiration. Later, atmospheric oxygen dropped again, and the Francevillian biota disappeared into extinction, leaving us with only these mysterious fossils hinting at a surprisingly diverse and alien-looking period in life’s deep past.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #22 – Gargantuan Godzillus

During the summer of 2011 amateur paleontologist Ron Fine discovered an unusual fossil in northern Kentucky, USA. Beginning with an oddly-textured nodule, he gradually excavated a structure about 1m wide and 2m long (3′3″ by 6′6″) – far larger than any other fossil found in the area, and unlike anything seen before.

Dating to the Late Ordovician (~450 mya), and nicknamed “Godzillus” due to its massive size, the strange fossil has a roughly elliptical shape with what appear to be multiple branching lobes, and a surface texture made up of many rows of tiny bumpy “scales”. In some places small trilobites are found directly attached to it, most likely either feeding on it or sheltering.

The full “Godzillus” fossil and a close-up of its complex surface texture [Image source]

Although a paper has been published on Godzillus, it’s been given no official scientific name or classification. At best it’s been called an “organically textured surface”, with two different main possibilities suggested for its identity – either an algal mat that was deformed by water currents and smothered by a turbidity flow, or some sort of unknown upright soft-bodied organism that was toppled over and similarly buried.

Both hypotheses have their own strengths and weaknesses, and each explain some features of the structure but not others. So, for now, Godzillus remains a bizarre and unique fossil.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #21 – Ancient Aquatic Aliens

Found only in the Carboniferous-aged Bear Gulch Limestone (~318 mya) in Montana, USA, Typhloesus wellsi is such a confusing animal that it’s been nicknamed “the alien goldfish”.

It was one of the first body fossils found containing conodont elements, leading to it initially being identified in the 1970s as the then-unknown conodont animal – until actual conodont animals were discovered a few years later, looking nothing like it. The elements were reassessed as actually being Typhloesus’ gut contents, indicating it was actually a conodont-eating predator or scavenger.

Reaching sizes of almost 10cm long (4″), it was vaguely fish-shaped with a pair of ventral fin folds and a stiffened vertical tail paddle. No obvious sensory structures are preserved, but there are impressions of a large gut cavity in the front half of its body, along with a pair of strange unidentified organs known as “ferrodiscus” that contained a high concentration of iron deposits.

And despite being known from over 50 specimens, we still don’t know where to classify it. At all. It lacks evidence of features like gill openings or a notochord that could associate it with chordates. Its gut appears to be a blind sack with no anus, a condition usually seen only in cnidarians and flatworms, and finned active swimmers are known in other invertebrate groups like molluscs and arrow worms, but Typhloesus doesn’t resemble anything like those either.

With the similarly mysterious Tullimonstrum recently getting a lot of attention and a possible identification as a lamprey-relative, perhaps somebody will eventually have another look at this strange little creature, too.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #20 – Dubious Diskagma

Only around 0.3-1.8mm long (0.01-0.7″), Diskagma buttonii is known from the Paleoproterozoic of South Africa, dating to a whopping 2.2 billion years ago. These tiny urn-shaped structures were connected into bunches, and were found in rocks that were once ancient soils – hinting that there may have been some form of (relatively) complex life present on dry land much earlier than previously thought, as far back as the early stages of the Great Oxygenation Event.

But what these things actually were is a mystery. Their size and complexity resemble some sort of eukaryote, which would make them one of the oldest known representatives. They also have some similarities to the older fossil Thucomyces lichenoides, the younger fossil Horodyskia, and a modern fungus with internal symbiotic cyanobacteria.

Or they could be a very early “experimental” branch of life with no close living relatives. For now, we just don’t know.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #17 – Enigmatic Ediacarans

Although Precambrian fossils have been known since the mid-1800s, the overwhelming belief among 19th and early 20th century scientists that complex life couldn’t have originated that early meant such discoveries either weren’t taken seriously or were forcibly assigned to a Cambrian age. It wasn’t until the discovery of Charnia in the 1950s that views began to change.

(Or, rather, the second discovery of Charnia, since the schoolgirl who first found it wasn’t taken seriously either.)

Since then, a wide variety of strange soft-bodied fossils have been identified from over 30 different localities around the world, on every continent except Antarctica, dating to ages from over 600 to 542 million years ago. They’re now known as the Ediacaran biota, after the Ediacara Hills in Australia where some of the most famous examples have been found.

A few show possible similarities to known groups, but we still don’t know what sort of lifeforms most of them they actually were. Animals, fungi, algae, foraminifera, microbial colonies, or lichens have all been proposed – but they might also belong to a completely unique kingdom or phylum, a “failed experiment” in multicellular life with no living descendants.

And they’re gradually turning out to be not nearly as “simple” as once thought, showing evidence of their own thriving ecosystems and evolutionary specializations – which makes their sudden disappearance at the end of the Ediacaran Period all the more mysterious.

Tribrachidium has been found in Australia, Ukraine, and Russia (558-555 mya), grew up to 5cm in diameter (2″), and shows unusual tri-radial symmetry. Affinities to both cnidarians and echinoderms have been suggested, but no classification has really stuck. Recent 3D modelling and fluid dynamic studies reveal its shape was adapted to direct water currents into the nooks between its “arms”, allowing it to feed on suspended organic particles.

Yorgia is known from Australia and Russia (~555 mya), and appears to be a transitional form between two other ediacarans, Dickinsonia and Spriggina. It has what appears to be a “head” end with an asymmetrical lobe, and a segmented body in a glide reflection pattern, growing up to 25cm long (10″). Trace fossils from its feeding strategy have also been found – chains of imprints over seafloor microbial mats, where it moved from spot to spot and “grazed” with the entire underside of its body.

Fractofusus is somewhat older (575-560 mya) and perhaps even stranger. Discovered in Canada in 1967, it was known only as “the spindle organism” for 40 years before being finally named in 2007. Its 40cm long form (16″) shows fractal self-similarity, made up of frond-like elements that branch even further again and again and again, creating a large surface area relative to its internal volume that may have been used to directly absorb nutrients from the surrounding seawater. It also seems to have been capable of reproducing in two different ways – producing both water-borne offspring and stolon-like clones of itself.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #14 – Thousands of Tiny Butts

Gluteus minimus are small fossils, sometimes referred to as “horse collars”, up to 11mm across (0.4″). Always slightly asymmetrical in the same direction, with growth lines on one surface and a solid internal structure, they’ve been found in large numbers from the Late Devonian of Iowa, USA (~385 mya).

Although they were first discovered in 1902, they weren’t formally described until 1975 – and ended up being named after a butt muscle.

What sort of creature they represent, however, is completely unknown. They’ve been suggested to be fish scales, fish teeth, parts of various molluscs, or brachiopods. And, more recently, to perhaps be otoliths.

They still can’t be confidently placed in any one phylum.

(Due to scarce reference images of G. minimus, this post’s illustration is directly based on the figure of the holotype specimen in the original description paper.)

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #05 – Confusing Chitinozoans

Chitinozoans are tiny microfossils (50-2000µm in size) commonly found in marine deposits all around the world between the end of the Cambrian and the start of the Carboniferous (~489-358 mya). Often described as “flask-shaped”, they have a variety of external ornamentation, are sometimes found in linked chains, and are important as Paleozoic index fossils.

But we don’t know what sort of organism actually made them.

They’ve been proposed to originate from a wide range of creatures, but currently the main hypothesis seems to be that they were the egg cases of certain marine animals – such as annelid worms, polychaete worms, molluscs, or even conodonts. Or possibly they might be immature graptolites. Or relatives of living ciliates. So far, though, no single identification seems to have gained any widespread acceptance.

[Edit: As of 2020, some exceptionally well-preserved chitinozoan specimens suggest these organisms were actually protists.]

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.