Letter | Published:

Reconstructing the reproductive mode of an Ediacaran macro-organism

Nature volume 524, pages 343346 (20 August 2015) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Enigmatic macrofossils of late Ediacaran age (580–541 million years ago) provide the oldest known record of diverse complex organisms on Earth, lying between the microbially dominated ecosystems of the Proterozoic and the Cambrian emergence of the modern biosphere1. Among the oldest and most enigmatic of these macrofossils are the Rangeomorpha, a group characterized by modular, self-similar branching and a sessile benthic habit2,3,4. Localized occurrences of large in situ fossilized rangeomorph populations allow fundamental aspects of their biology to be resolved using spatial point process techniques5. Here we use such techniques to identify recurrent clustering patterns in the rangeomorph Fractofusus, revealing a complex life history of multigenerational, stolon-like asexual reproduction, interspersed with dispersal by waterborne propagules. Ecologically, such a habit would have allowed both for the rapid colonization of a localized area and for transport to new, previously uncolonized areas. The capacity of Fractofusus to derive adult morphology by two distinct reproductive modes documents the sophistication of its underlying developmental biology.

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Acknowledgements

The Parks and Natural Areas Division, Department of Environment and Conservation, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, provided permits to conduct research within the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve in 2010, while the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation provided permits for palaeontological research on the Bonavista Peninsula in 2012. Access to both of the aforementioned fossil localities is by scientific research permit only. Contact the relevant Department listed above for further information. This work has been supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (grant numbers NE/I005927/1 to C.G.K., NE/J5000045/1 to J.J.M., NE/L011409/1 to A.G.L. and NE/G523539/1 to E.G.M.), and a Henslow Junior Research Fellowship from the Cambridge Philosophical Society to A.G.L. We thank M. Laflamme for discussions on this manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK

    • Emily G. Mitchell
    • , Charlotte G. Kenchington
    •  & Nicholas J. Butterfield
  2. British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK

    • Charlotte G. Kenchington
  3. School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Life Sciences Building, 24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8 1TQ, UK

    • Alexander G. Liu
  4. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3AN, UK

    • Jack J. Matthews

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Contributions

E.G.M. conceived the project, collected data on the ‘D’ and ‘E’ surfaces and ran the analyses. C.G.K., A.G.L. and J.J.M. collected data on the H14 surface. All authors discussed the results and prepared the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emily G. Mitchell.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14646

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