Look at the photo above, and you are looking at least 555 million years into the past. This tiny fossil of a previously unknown multicellular marine algae – what we now know as seaweed – is less than a millimeter thick and among the oldest examples of multicellular life ever unearthed.
Its name: Chinggiskhaania, after the famed Mongolian conquerer Genghis Khan.
Paleontologist Stephen Dornbos and his research partners found it in a new Burgess Shale-type deposit in western Mongolia. Such deposits have the right characteristics to preserve soft-bodied organisms as thin carbon films.
The fossil will assist in the difficult task of pinpointing when life evolved from single-celled to multicellular organisms, which scientists now believe started millions of years earlier than previously thought.
“This discovery helps tell us more about life in a period that is relatively undocumented,” says Dornbos, a UWM associate professor of geosciences. “It can help us correlate the changes in life forms with what we know about the Earth’s ancient environments. It is a major evolutionary step toward life as we know it today.”
The work, which Dornbos did with a team of researchers from Japan and Mongolia, was funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and NASA’s Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium. The team’s work is detailed in a paper published in the open-access online journal Scientific Reports, with Dornbos as first author.