They lived before the dawn of true animals, some 580 million years ago, and scientists still aren’t sure whether they were animals, plants, or neither.
These mysterious creatures known as Ediacarans have puzzled researchers for years. Now, however, new scans of rare 3D Ediacaran fossils found in Namibia have revealed more about these bizarre life forms than ever before.
Researchers at University College London carried out these scans on a specific group of Ediacarans called Rangeomorphs, as detailed in a new study published in the journal Precambrian Research. Using computerized tomography technology, the researchers were able to see inside these specimens like never before and at least begin to understand their inner-workings.
“This is the first look inside such a unique specimen of a rangeomorph,” lead researcher Alana Sharp told the New Scientist. Sharp and company were able to see the specimens’ internal structures, including its cone-shaped central trunk and the six fern-like fronds extending out from it to form a primitive kind of skeleton.
Despite such insights, scientists still known relatively little about the Ediacarans. We know that they were soft-bodied, multicellular, largely immobile organisms that could grow to sizes larger than humans, and that they disappeared some 540 million years ago, but not all that much more.
“There’s still so much to discover about what these creatures were and how they lived, and detailed information on their anatomy is very valuable,” the University of Cambridge’s Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill told the New Scientist.
“They may or may not be animals – we can’t say from this study,” says Sharp. “But they are the first of the truly large, multicellular organisms that radiated broadly before the first true animals evolved.”
Now, in hopes of unlocking more of the mysteries of the Ediacarans, Sharp and her team will return to Namibia in search of more specimens of these bewildering creatures.
Next, read up on the lifeform that scientists have now determined to be the very first animal ever on Earth.