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Changing the picture of Earth's earliest fossils (3.5–1.9 Ga) with new approaches and new discoveries
- Brasier, Martin D., Antcliffe, Jonathan, Saunders, Martin, Wacey, David
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 v.112 no.16 pp. 4859-4864
- biodiversity, habitats, microfossils, microorganisms, sand, sandstone, shorelines
- New analytical approaches and discoveries are demanding fresh thinking about the early fossil record. The 1.88-Ga Gunflint chert provides an important benchmark for the analysis of early fossil preservation. High-resolution analysis of Gunflintia shows that microtaphonomy can help to resolve long-standing paleobiological questions. Novel 3D nanoscale reconstructions of the most ancient complex fossil Eosphaera reveal features hitherto unmatched in any crown-group microbe. While Eosphaera may preserve a symbiotic consortium, a stronger conclusion is that multicellular morphospace was differently occupied in the Paleoproterozoic. The 3.46-Ga Apex chert provides a test bed for claims of biogenicity of cell-like structures. Mapping plus focused ion beam milling combined with transmission electron microscopy data demonstrate that microfossil-like taxa, including species of Archaeoscillatoriopsis and Primaevifilum , are pseudofossils formed from vermiform phyllosilicate grains during hydrothermal alteration events. The 3.43-Ga Strelley Pool Formation shows that plausible early fossil candidates are turning up in unexpected environmental settings. Our data reveal how cellular clusters of unexpectedly large coccoids and tubular sheath-like envelopes were trapped between sand grains and entombed within coatings of dripstone beach-rock silica cement. These fossils come from Earth’s earliest known intertidal to supratidal shoreline deposit, accumulated under aerated but oxygen poor conditions.