In an incredible discovery, paleontologists have stumbled upon a vast treasure trove of extremely old fossils, dating back more than 500 million years to the Cambrian Period. The impressive haul contains thousands of separate fossils encompassing a staggering 101 species of marine creatures. Astonishingly, more than half of these species were previously unknown to science, adding a wealth of new specimens to the fossil record.
This fantastic cache of fossils was unearthed from a newly-discovered site in south China, found in the Hubei Province along the Qingjiang River. Consequently, it has been collectively dubbed the Qingjiang biota, Ars Technica is reporting.
The credit goes to a team of scientists led by Xingliang Zhang and Dongjing Fu at Northwest University in Xi’an. According to the paleontologists who made the discovery, the newfound site is unique for a number of reasons.
For one thing, the fossil bed lies on a rare type of sedimentary rock and was created in oxygen-poor waters, as these ancient aquatic creatures – which originally dwelled in shallow waters – were pulled by strong currents into the deep soon after death. This particular combination of conditions went on to form a rich and spectacularly well-preserved fossil bed known as Lagerstätte.
And, surely enough, the newly-uncovered fossils are exquisitely preserved. Not only that, but they boast an overwhelming variety that goes beyond mere ancient bones, incorporating a multitude of soft-bodied organisms as well. Among the animals found at the Qingjiang site, the researchers listed corals, sponges, sea anemones, jellyfish, and comb jellies. In addition, the Qingjiang biota also yielded quite a few species of arthropods (an invertebrate group that includes spiders and crustaceans), tiny invertebrates called mud dragons, and microscopic fossils, notes CNN.
A newly discovered fossil site in China that dates back 518 million years contains more than 50% previously unknown species, according to a new study https://t.co/0GdQLZaofU pic.twitter.com/XFF3pjzeb0— CNN (@CNN) March 21, 2019
All in all, the team dug up a whopping 4,351 fossil specimens representing 101 species – from what they have identified so far, that is. Of these species, 53 percent were completely new and 85 percent were soft-bodied animals, details Gizmodo. This extraordinary find is detailed in a paper published today in the journal Science.
“It is a huge surprise that such a large proportion of species in this fossil assemblage are new to science,” said study co-author Robert Gaines, a geologist from Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Aside from being incredibly diverse, the newly discovered fossils are also fantastically well preserved. In fact, the specimens have stood the test of time to such a great extent that the soft-bodied creatures within the Qingjiang biota still retain muscle tissue, along with eyes, gills, mouths, and even intestines.
This is all the more remarkable considering that the fossils were determined to be 518 million years old.
Zhang has described his team’s finding as an “excellent preservation of so many Cambrian creatures.”
“Some are weird, some exactly look like what we have today.”
Martin Smith, a paleontologist at Durham University who was not involved in the excavations, deemed the quality and preservation level of the new Cambrian fossils as “mind-blowing.”
“If you sent a time traveler back to the Cambrian period armed with a camera and an X-ray machine, the images they’d come back with would be nothing compared to these fossils, which preserve detail finer than a human hair,” Smith told The Guardian.
Until now, the most prominent Cambrian sites uncovered by paleontologists were the Burgess Shale biota, a 508-million-year-old fossil bed discovered in Canada, and the 518-million-year-old Chengjiang biota found in China, some 650 miles from Qingjiang.
Interestingly enough, the two similarly aged fossil beds – Chengjiang and Qingjiang – only shared eight species, showing a remarkable diversity despite hailing from nearby locations and from the same time period.
“The comparison of the two biotas offers a rare opportunity to understand how early metazoan communities developed in response to environmental parameters,” the authors wrote in their paper.
Due to the staggering diversity of these fossils, the latest discovery paints a very detailed picture of the variety of Cambrian life, giving unprecedented insight into the evolution of animals around the time of the Cambrian Explosion — the massive life-bursting event that took place between 541 and 510 million years ago and sparked the rise of most of the major animal groups alive today, as The Inquisitr previously reported.
“These fossils help us to piece together the steps that evolution took as animals evolved from whatever squishy blob represents their common ancestor to the rich diversity of lineages alive today,” said Smith.
“Because some of the preserved organisms are much simpler than their living relatives, they help us to tease apart how complex organs, such as brains, could be assembled through blind evolutionary processes.”