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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Nature (2021)






<p>Molecular phylogeny indicates that metazoans (animals) emerged early in the Neoproterozoic era1, but physical evidence is lacking. The search for animal fossils from the Proterozoic eon is hampered by uncertainty about what physical characteristics to expect. Sponges are the most basic known animal type2,3; it is possible that body fossils of hitherto-undiscovered Proterozoic metazoans might resemble aspect(s) of Phanerozoic fossil sponges. Vermiform microstructure4,5, a complex petrographic feature in Phanerozoic reefal and microbial carbonates, is now known to be the body fossil of nonspicular keratosan demosponges6–10. This Article presents petrographically identical vermiform microstructure from approximately 890-million-year-old reefs. The millimetric-to-centimetric vermiform-microstructured organism lived only on, in and immediately beside reefs built by calcifying cyanobacteria (photosynthesizers), and occupied microniches in which these calcimicrobes could not live. If vermiform microstructure is in fact the fossilized tissue of keratose sponges, the material described here would represent the oldest body-fossil evidence of animals known to date, and would provide the first physical evidence that animals emerged before the Neoproterozoic oxygenation event and survived through the glacial episodes of the Cryogenian period.</p>