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Australian scientists have identified the world’s oldest animal life form from fossil fat

Mark Dunn and AFP, September 23, 2018 7:00PM AFP

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Organically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia. media_cameraOrganically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.

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The world’s earliest animal life form — aged 558 million years old — has been officially identified by Australian scientists.

The strange fossil that looks a bit like a giant leaf, or a fingerprint the size of a coffee table, had intrigued scientists for decades. Thousands of its type had been found over the past 70 years, revealing that it lived at the bottom of the ocean, without a mouth or intestines*.

Now, after digging one of these fossils off a cliff in Russia and analysing its contents, Australian National University researchers discovered molecules* of cholesterol, which is a type of fat. This fat confirms that the creature, known as Dickinsonia, is the Earth’s earliest known animal.

Organically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.
media_cameraOrganically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.
ANU researcher Ilya Bobrovskiy searches for fossils in the Zimnie Gory locality, Russia.
media_cameraANU researcher Ilya Bobrovskiy searches for fossils in the Zimnie Gory locality, Russia.

ANU PhD scholar Ilya Bobrovskiy said it took a lot of effort to unlock the mystery.

“I took a helicopter to reach this very remote part of the world — home to bears and mosquitoes — where I could find Dickinsonia fossils with organic matter* still intact,” Mr Bobrovskiy said.

“These fossils were located in the middle of cliffs of the White Sea that are 60m to 100m high,” Mr Bobrovskiy said.

PhD candidate Ilya Bobrovskiy, from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, work in their lab analysing rock samples.
media_cameraPhD candidate Ilya Bobrovskiy, from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, work in their lab analysing rock samples.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after.”

ANU Research School of Earth Sciences Associate Professor Jochen Brocks said identifying Dickinsonia as the earliest known animal was a new marker* in genetic* history.

VIDEO: Check out the huge teeth on this baby tyrannosaur dinosaur fossil.

“Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran Biota were: giant single-celled amoeba*, lichen*, failed experiments of evolution or the earliest animals on Earth.

“The fossil fat now confirms Dickinsonia as the oldest known animal fossil, solving a decades-old mystery that has been the Holy Grail* of palaeontology*.”

The research was published in Science journal.

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GLOSSARY

  • intestines: part of your gut
  • molecules: particles made up of two or more atoms that are chemically bonded together
  • organic matter: matter that has come from a recently living organism
  • marker: an object used to indicate a position, place or time
  • genetic: elating to genes or family
  • amoeba: a single-celled animal
  • lichen: a simple slow-growing plant on rocks
  • Holy Grail: a thing which is eagerly pursued or sought after
  • palaeontology: science of fossils, animals and plants

LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY

QUICK QUIZ

  1. How old is the Dickinsonia fossil?
  2. Where was it found?
  3. How did they identify it as being an animal?
  4. What common body features was it missing?
  5. How big is the leaf-shaped fossil?

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Future Fossils
Imagine it is the year 3018 — 1000 years in the future …..

Write a newspaper article reporting a fossil found from 1000 years ago, meaning an animal from our current time. In the article explain what animal the fossil is from, what happened to it and where it was found.

2. Extension
Explain in your own words why the official identification of Dickinsonia is such an important scientific discovery.

Time: Allow 20 minutes
Curriculum Links: English, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s. Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What sort of animal fossil would you like to find?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking.

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