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Picture of the Day

Oldest evidence for animals found by researchers

National Science Foundation-funded researchers have found the oldest clue yet of animal life, dating back at least 100 million years before the famous Cambrian explosion of animal fossils. Rather than searching for conventional body fossils, the researchers have been tracking molecular signs of animal life, called biomarkers, as far back as 660–635 million years ago during the Neoproterozoic Era. In ancient rocks and oils from Oman, Siberia and India, they found a steroid compound produced only by sponges, which are among the earliest forms of animal life. The biomarker they identified, a steroid compound named 26-methylstigmastane (26-mes), has a unique structure that is currently only known to be synthesized by certain species of modern sponges called demosponges. The work builds on a 2009 study, which reported the first compelling biomarker evidence for Neoproterozoic animals from a different steroid biomarker, called 24-isopropylcholestane (24-ipc), from rocks in South Oman. However, the 24-ipc biomarker evidence proved controversial since 24-ipc steroids are not exclusively made by demosponges and can be found in a few modern algae. The finding of the additional and novel 26-mes ancient biomarker, which is unique to demosponges, adds extra confidence that both compounds are fossil biomolecules produced by demosponges on an ancient seafloor.

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