In 1998, Shuhai Xiao and colleagues reported finding thousands of 600 million year old embryo microfossils in the Neoproterozoic Doushantuo Formation, a fossil site near Weng’an, South China, (Xiao, S., Zhang, Y., and Knoll, A.H., 1998, "Three-dimensional preservation of algae and animal embryos in a Neoproterozoic phosphorite," Nature, v. 391). Within the egg cases they examined at that time, they discovered animals in the first stages of development – from a single cell to only a few dozen cells. "The cellular preservation is amazing," says Xiao, assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech.
But what kind of adult would these ancient embryos have hatched into?
In 2000, Xiao’s team reported the discovery of a coral-like animal that might be a candidate for parenthood (Xiao, S., Yuan, X., and Knoll, A.H., 2000, "Eumetazoan fossils in terminal Proterozoic phosphorites?" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, v. 97). "It was tubular, not spherical. But in some of the best specimens, we could see that the tube branches and has cross-walls," Xiao said. "But can it be linked to the embryos?"
Susan Trulove | EurekAlert!
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