550-million-year-old fossils provide new clues about fossil formation

A new study from University of Missouri and Virginia Tech researchers is challenging accepted ideas about how ancient soft-bodied organisms become part of the fossil record. Findings suggest that bacteria involved in the decay of those organisms play an active role in how fossils are formed — often in a matter of just a few tens to hundreds of years. Understanding the relationship between decay and fossilization will inform future study and help researchers interpret fossils in a new way.

The vast majority of the fossil record is composed of bones and shells,” said James Schiffbauer, assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “Fossils of soft-bodied animals like worms and jellyfish, however, provide our only views onto the early evolution of animal life. Most hypotheses as to the preservation of these soft tissues focus on passive processes, where normal decay is halted or impeded in some way, such as by sealing off the sediments where the animal is buried. Our team is instead detailing a scenario where the actual decay helped ‘feed’ the process turning the organisms into fossils — in this case, the decay of the organisms played an active role in creating fossils.”

Schiffbauer studied a type of fossil animal from the Ediacaran Period called Conotubus, which lived more than 540 million years ago. He noted that these fossils are either replicated by, or associated with, pyrite — commonly called fool’s gold. The tiny fossils are tube-shaped and believed to have been composed of substances similar at least in hardness to human fingernails. These fossilized tubes are all that remain of the soft-bodied animals that inhabited them and most likely resembled worms or sea anemone-like animals.

“Most of the animals that had once lived on the Earth — with estimates eclipsing 10 billion species — were never preserved in the fossil record, but in our study we have a spectacular view of a tinier fraction of soft-bodied animals,” said Shuhai Xiao, professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech and a co-author on this study. “We asked the important questions of how, and under what special conditions, these soft-tissued organisms can escape the fate of complete degradation and be preserved in the rock record.”

Schiffbauer and his team performed a sophisticated suite of chemical analyses of these fossils to determine what caused the pyrite to form. They found that the fool’s gold on the organisms’ outer tube formed when bacteria first began consuming the animal’s soft tissues, with the decay actually promoting the formation of pyrite.

“Normally, the Earth is good at cleaning up after itself,” Schiffbauer said. “In this case, the bacteria that helped break down these organisms also are responsible for preserving them as fossils. As the decay occurred, pyrite began replacing and filling in space within the animal’s exoskeleton, preserving them. Additionally, we found that this process happened in the space of a few years, perhaps even as low as 12 to 800. Ultimately, these new findings will help scientists to gain a better grasp of why these fossils are preserved, and what features represent the fossilization process versus original biology, so we can better reconstruct the evolutionary tree of life.”

Asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs may have nearly knocked off mammals, too

The extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago is thought to have paved the way for mammals to dominate, but a new study shows that many mammals died off alongside the dinosaurs.

Metatherian mammals — the extinct relatives of living marsupials (“mammals with pouches,” such as opossums) — thrived in the shadow of the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period. The new study, by an international team of experts on mammal evolution and mass extinctions, shows that these once-abundant mammals nearly followed the dinosaurs into oblivion.

When a 10-km-wide asteroid struck what is now Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous and unleashed a global cataclysm of environmental destruction, some two-thirds of all metatherians living in North America perished. This includes more than 90% of species living in the northern Great Plains of the USA, the best area in the world for preserving latest Cretaceous mammal fossils.

In the aftermath of the mass extinction, metatherians would never recover their previous diversity, which is why marsupial mammals are rare today and largely restricted to unusual environments in Australia and South America.

Taking advantage of the metatherian demise were the placental mammals: species that give live birth to well-developed young. They are ubiquitous across the globe today and include everything from mice to men.

Dr. Thomas Williamson of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, lead author on the study, said: “This is a new twist on a classic story. It wasn’t only that dinosaurs died out, providing an opportunity for mammals to reign, but that many types of mammals, such as most metatherians, died out too — this allowed advanced placental mammals to rise to dominance.”

Dr. Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, an author on the report, said: “The classic tale is that dinosaurs died out and mammals, which had been waiting in the wings for over 100 million years, then finally had their chance. But our study shows that many mammals came perilously close to extinction. If a few lucky species didn’t make it through, then mammals may have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we wouldn’t be here.”

The new study is published in the open access journal ZooKeys. It reviews the Cretaceous evolutionary history of metatherians and provides the most up-to-date family tree for these mammals based on the latest fossil records, which allowed researchers to study extinction patterns in unprecedented detail.

Dr. Gregory Wilson of the University of Washington also took part in the study.

The work was supported by the US National Science Foundation and the European Commission.