Researchers from the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, worked with paleontologists from the University of Oxford and the Memorial University of Newfoundland in excising, naming and studying the remarkable 560-million-year-old fossil. The scientists dubbed the waving, four-pronged blob of muscle Haootia quadriformis, and determined that it was a predecessor of the group of animals known as Cnidarians, which includes modern jellyfish, corals and sea anemones.
As revealed in the scientists' new paper on the subject -- published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B -- Haootia quadriformis dates from the Ediacaran Period, a portion of the fossil record that spans from 635 to 541 million years ago. That means this ancient Cnidarian predates the Cambrian Explosion, the period of time when most animals first appear in the fossil record.
If Haootia quadriformis began using its muscles to explore the world prior to the Cambrian Explosion, the species (and others like it) may have played a crucial part in enabling to rapid burst of biodiversity that followed 20 million years later.
"The evolution of muscular animals, in possession of muscle tissues that enabled them to precisely control their movements, paved the way for the exploration of a vast range of feeding strategies, environments, and ecological niches, allowing animals to become the dominant force in global ecosystems," said Alex Liu, the study's lead author and a researcher at Cambridge's department of Earth sciences.
"It shows to science that animals were around earlier than previously thought," Jack Matthews, an Oxford doctoral candidate in geology, told the CBC. "There's been discussion for some time about when animals first appeared in the fossil record."
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