Geological alteration of Precambrian steroids mimics early animal signatures


The absence of unambiguous animal body fossils in rocks older than the late Ediacaran has rendered fossil lipids the most promising tracers of early organismic complexity. Yet much debate surrounds the various potential biological sources of putative metazoan steroids found in Precambrian rocks. Here we show that 26-methylated steranes—hydrocarbon structures currently attributed to the earliest animals—can form via geological alteration of common algal sterols, which carries important implications for palaeo-ecological interpretations and inhibits the use of such unconventional ‘sponge’ steranes for reconstructing early animal evolution.

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Fig. 1: The geological record of steroid evolution.
Fig. 2: Alkylsteranes in Neoproterozoic rocks and in sterol pyrolysates.

Data availability

All data are available in the Supplementary Information.


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We thank R. Tarozo and P. Pringle for laboratory support, I. Bobrovskiy for discussions and helpful comments on the manuscript, P. Sansjofre for sharing Araras Group samples, the National Park Service (GRCA-00645) for permission to sample the Chuar Group and G. Love for providing a 26-mes reference sample. This work was funded by the Max-Planck-Society and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Research Center/Cluster of Excellence 309: MARUM - Center for Marine Environmental Sciences). We further acknowledge the French National Research Agency (CNRS; P.S. and P.A.) and the Australian Research Council (grant nos. DP1095247 and DP160100607 to J.J.B.).

Author information




L.M.v.M., B.J.N. and C.H. designed the research, analysed all geochemical data and wrote the manuscript with input from A.L., J.J.B., P.S. and P.A., who also assisted with interpretation. L.M.v.M. conducted the geological analyses. B.J.N. and A.L. performed pyrolysis experiments on modern sterols. P.A. and P.S. synthesized standards of 3-alkylsteranes and 26-mec.

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Correspondence to Lennart M. van Maldegem or Benjamin J. Nettersheim or Christian Hallmann.

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Supplementary Discussion, Figs. 1–5, Tables 1–4 and refs. 1–21.

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van Maldegem, L.M., Nettersheim, B.J., Leider, A. et al. Geological alteration of Precambrian steroids mimics early animal signatures. Nat Ecol Evol (2020).

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