Possible animal-body fossils in pre-Marinoan limestones from South Australia



The Neoproterozoic era was punctuated by the Sturtian (about 710 million years ago) and Marinoan (about 635 million years ago) intervals of glaciation. In South Australia, the rocks left behind by the glaciations are separated by a succession of limestones and shales, which were deposited at tropical latitudes. Here we describe millimetre- to centimetre-scale fossils from the Trezona Formation, which pre-dates the Marinoan glaciation. These weakly calcified fossils occur as anvil, wishbone, ring and perforated slab shapes and are contained within stromatolitic limestones. The Trezona Formation fossils pre-date the oldest known calcified fossils of this size by 90 million years, and cannot be separated from the surrounding calcite matrix or imaged by traditional X-ray-based tomographic scanning methods. Instead, we have traced cross-sections of individual fossils by serially grinding and scanning each sample at a resolution of 50.8 μm. From these images we constructed three-dimensional digital models of the fossils. Our reconstructions show a population of ellipsoidal organisms without symmetry and with a network of interior canals that lead to circular apertures on the fossil surface. We suggest that several characteristics of these reef-dwelling fossils are best explained if the fossils are identified as sponge-grade metazoans.

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Figure 1: Geological and stratigraphic setting of the Trezona Formation.
Figure 2: Diverse morphology of the Trezona Formation fossils.
Figure 3: Three-dimensional reconstruction of the Trezona Formation fossils.


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W. Watters provided us with example imagery, and, along with J. Hawthorne, gave us helpful Matlab advice. B. Evans allowed us to use his precision grinding machine at MIT, E. Feldman provided useful advice about machine design and machine code and S. Myneni helped us with the ATR-FTIR spectroscopy. We would like to thank B. E. Girit, W. A. Rozen, S. Briedfjord and A. Lukyanov of Situ Studio. B. Dyer, J. Strauss, N. Swanson-Hysell and N. Xu assisted with field work. S. Bowring, T. Duffy, J. Grotzinger, A. Knoll, M. Manuel, S. Porter, E. Sperling, G. Subsol and S. Xiao provided stimulating discussion. Flinders National Park and numerous pastoralists graciously allowed us to conduct field work on their land. The research was financially supported by NSF-EAR0842946 to A.C.M. and NSF-DMR-0819860 to the Princeton Center for Complex Materials.

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A.C.M. and C.V.R. conducted the field work. C.V.R. carried out the serial grinding and imaging. R.B., B.M.S., C.V.R., C.C.C., F.J.S. and A.C.M. did the 3D modelling. G.R.P., N.Y., A.C.M. and C.V.R. did the E-SEM EDX analyses. C.V.R. conducted the ATR-FTIR spectroscopy. A.C.M. and D.H.E. wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Adam C. Maloof.

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Maloof, A., Rose, C., Beach, R. et al. Possible animal-body fossils in pre-Marinoan limestones from South Australia. Nature Geosci 3, 653–659 (2010) doi:10.1038/ngeo934

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