05 February 2009

Ancient sponges raise intriguing questions

"We're not saying we captured the first animal; we're saying they're an early animal phylum and we're capturing them when their biomass was significant."

The discovery pushes back the earliest accepted date for animal life on Earth by tens of millions of years. This pre-dates the end of the Marinoan glaciation, a deep freeze often referred to as "snowball Earth". "If there really was a snowball Earth, how did those sponges survive? The full snowball Earth hypothesis would predict that the oceans were frozen over by 2km, even at the equator."

Ancient sponges leave their mark
Jonathan Amos, BBC News 4 Feb 09
Traces of animal life have been found in rocks dating back 635 million years.

The evidence takes the form of chemical markers that are highly distinctive of sponges when they die and their bodies break down in rock-forming sediments.

The discovery in Oman pushes back the earliest accepted date for animal life on Earth by tens of millions of years.

Scientists tell Nature magazine that the creatures' existence will help them understand better what the planet looked like all that time ago.

"The fact that we can detect these signals shows that sponges were ecologically important on the seafloor at that time," said lead author Gordon Love, from the University of California, Riverside.

"We're not saying we captured the first animal; we're saying they're an early animal phylum and we're capturing them when their biomass was significant."

Tiny creatures

Researchers can usually determine the presence of ancient life in rock strata by looking for the fossilised remains of skeletons or the hardened record of the creatures' movements, such as their footprints or crawl marks.

But for organisms deep in geological history that were extremely small and soft bodied, scientists have had to develop novel techniques to uncover their existence.

One of these newer methods involves detecting breakdown products from the lipid molecules which act as important structural components in the cell membranes of animals.

Over time, these will transform to leave a molecule known as cholestrane; and for sponges, this exclusively takes the form known as 24-isopropylcholestane.

Dr Love's team found high concentrations of this biomarker in rocks located at the south-eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula.

They were laid down in what would have been a shallow marine environment at least 635 million years ago.

"Even though there must have been sufficient oxygen in the water to maintain the metabolism of these primitive animals, I think their size would have been restricted by oxygen being nowhere near modern values," the UC Riverside researcher said.

"We're probably talking about small colonies of sponges with body dimensions of a few millimetres at most. They'd have been filtering organic detritus in the water column."

Icy planet

The discovery is fascinating because it pre-dates the end of the Marinoan glaciation, a deep freeze in Earth history that some argue shrouded the entire planet in ice.

Scientists often refer to the term "snowball Earth" to describe conditions at this time.

So to find animal life apparently thriving during this glaciation seems remarkable, commented Jochen Brochs, from the Australian National University, Canberra.

"If there really was a snowball Earth, how did those sponges survive? The full snowball Earth hypothesis would predict that the oceans were frozen over by 2km, even at the equator," he told BBC News.

"Only at hot springs could any organism survive but it is questionable that you would have sponges in a hot spring. I haven't made my mind up about snowball Earth but perhaps these sponges are telling us something about this glaciation."

Dr Love's view is that the presence of these animals puts limits on the scale of the ice coverage.

"I believe there were areas of what we might call refugia - areas of open ocean where biology could go on. And in this case, it could be evidence that we had some sort of evolutionary stimulation of new grades of organisms as well."

Earliest Animals Were Sea Sponges, Fossils Hint
Rebecca Carroll, National Geographic News 4 Feb 09;
Fossil steroids found underground in Oman show that early Earth was the scene of a sea sponge heyday more than 635 million years ago.

The ancient chemicals—similar to modern natural steroids such as estrogen and testosterone—are now the oldest known fossil evidence of animal life, says a new study led by Gordon Love of the University of California, Riverside.

Based on chemical signatures inside sedimentary rocks, Love and colleagues think the sponges likely grew in colonies that blanketed areas of the ocean floor.

Back then the supercontinent Rodinia, which had been Earth's dominant landmass for at least 350 million years, was in the process of breaking up, and the climate was extremely cold worldwide.

Sponges evolved in shallow ocean basins, because the deeper seas did not yet contain oxygen, a necessity for almost all life.

Although the environment was harsh at this time—about a hundred million years before the evolutionary growth spurt known as the Cambrian explosion—a lack of predators made life easier for the sponges.

"There was no competition from more complicated animals, so sponges were probably thriving," Love said. "Compared with other times in our history, there were enormously high amounts of them."

Spongy Roots

Love and colleagues were able to date the sea sponges because the animals' chemical traces were found in rocks beneath glacial deposits from an ice age that ended about 635 million years ago.

The scientists cut away the outer surfaces of the rock, cleaned the remaining core with solvents, and crushed what was left behind into a powder that could be chemically separated into its component parts.

"It just so happens that these sponges produce very distinctive chemical structures," said Love, whose team describes their results in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

Kevin Peterson of Dartmouth College and his colleagues had independently hypothesized that sponges lived about 650 million years ago based on biological clues in the genes of modern sponges.

"To see to a robust, geochemical record of a tremendous amount of sponge mass at this time is very exciting," said Peterson, who was not involved in the new study.

"At some point during this interval, sponges gave rise to more complex organisms, including eventually vertebrates," he said.

"The origin of complex life is rooted in sponge biology, and that's what makes it so exciting for us."

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