4. Aug, 2015

New Foundland fossils

Fossils of Fractofusus, seen in an illustration, were found in clusters containing larger, older individuals, surrounded by younger, smaller ones, suggesting they were in the process of asexual reproduction. (C. G. Kenchington)


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A significant fossil find on the Newfoundland coastline could shed light on what may be the oldest physical evidence of reproduction in a complex organism.

A team led by researchers from England's University of Cambridge found the fossils in the Trinity Bay North area. The new fossils were estimated to be 565 million years old and belonged to Fractofusus, a type of rangeomorph. Rangemorphs, marine organisms that looked a bit like ferns, were some of the earliest complex organisms on Earth. Earlier life forms were mostly single-celled and reproduced simply by dividing.

The Fractofusus fossils are clustered together in a way that suggests there are three generations of organisms in a cluster — larger, older ones surrounded by younger, smaller ones.


A close-up view of the Fractofusus fossils, estimated to be 565 million years old, found in the slab of rock in Trinity Bay North. (Submitted)

Jack Matthews of Oxford University has been studying rocks in Newfoundland for about eight years. He was part of the team that found the fossils.

"It [the clustering] suggests that these organisms could reproduce rapidly via what's known as asexual reproduction," said Matthews.

The pattern strongly resembles clustering observed in modern plants such as strawberries, where smaller offspring grow from "runners" sent out by the older generation.

"Many of these fossils are thought to be quite simple in their tissue structures, and the way that they lived and grew in these marine environments," Matthews said. "What we actually see is that they have a very sophisticated system to their biology whereby they can have two methods of reproduction."

The researchers think that besides reproducing using "runners," these organisms sometimes propagate using seed-like "propagules" — which is where the largest "grandparents" in the clusters came from.

The discovery was published in the journal Nature.