First, we have to know what biologists mean by “animals”. In brief, they are multicellular organisms comprising eukaryotic cells (“true cells” with a nucleus and nuclear membrane, as well as organelles like mitochondria). Or, to be more specific, I’ll give the Wikipedia definition:
Animals (also called Metazoa) are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms in the biological kingdom Animalia. With few exceptions, animals consume organic material, breathe oxygen, are able to move, can reproduce sexually, and go through an ontogenetic stage in which their body consists of a hollow sphere of cells, the blastula, during embryonic development.
Long before animals existed, living organisms existed, but these were cyanobacteria (“blue green algae”) and other microbes, not regarded as animals. The first cyanobacteria date back about 3.5 billion years, only a billion years after the Earth formed. The cyanobacteria are identified in fossil stromatolites—layered reef-like structures formed by the accretion of bacteria. Stromatolites are still forming in some places on Earth, like Shark Bay, Australia.
But when did the first metazoan, or “animal” appear? For that you can use either fossil or molecular evidence.
The earliest fossil scientists regard as an animal is Dickinsonia from the Ediacara fauna, dated about 540 million years ago. Scientists think it’s an animal because its lipid biomarkers, which you can extract from fossils and the sediments above and below them, include cholesteroids, compounds found exclusively in animals. Dickinsonia is known only from imprints, like the one below, and its affinities are a mystery.
Molecular data, from which you can construct a phylogenetic tree of living animal groups and then extrapolate backwards, have shown that animals probably originated between 650 and 850 million years ago, but we have no animal fossils from that period. Those trees also show that perhaps the earliest animal was similar to sponges, for sponges seem to be the most “basal” animals—those that branched off the animal tree before other groups. This makes sponges the “sister group” of all other animals.
Now a new paper in Nature by Elizabeth C. Turner of Laurentian University in Canada has pushed the oldest animal fossil back a long way: several hundred million years—to 890 million years ago! And, in fact, the fossil shows features of early sponges, verifying the molecular conclusions.
Now not all paleobiologists agree that what Turner found is an animal—some say the structures observed may have a microbial origin—but Turner herself is pretty confident, as are some other paleontologists. So let’s take this conclusion as “likely, but not certain”. Surely further work will either strengthen or weaken Turner’s evidence.
You can access Turner’s paper by clicking on the screenshot below, or downloading the pdf here. The reference is at the bottom of this post.
Investigating the Little Dal Reef Formation in Northwestern Canada, itself a kind of stromatolite, Turner collected rocks between 1992 and 2018, and, in thin sections of those rocks, observed “vermiform” (worm-shaped) microstructures filled with calcite “spar”, or calcium carbonate crystals. These tube-like structures join and divide in a branching network, just like the tubules of modern sponges, some of which have a calcite skeleton. (The tubules of modern sponges allow them to circulate water through their bodies, getting food and oxygen.) These wormlike structures are surrounded in the fossils by a calcite “groundmass”, which may be the external body of the sponge.
Here’s what Turner says about these interconnecting tubules and why she regards them as early sponges:
The shape, size, branching style and polygonal meshworks of the Little Dal vermiform tubules closely resemble both spongin fibre networks of modern keratosan sponges (Fig. 2a–c) and vermiform microstructure either demonstrated or interpreted to be sponge-derived in diverse Phanerozoic microbial, reefal and non-reefal carbonate rocks. The compositional and textural homogeneity of the microspar groundmass supports an origin through permineralization of a pre-existing biological substance, rather than incremental accumulation of detrital sediment or microbial carbonate that passively incorporated complexly anastomosing tubular microfossils. Variable preservation and association with geopetal peloid accumulations are familiar aspects of Phanerozoic sponge taphonomy In previous work, detailed comparison of the three-dimensional characteristics of vermiform microstructure with branching cylindrical organism types yielded no convincing alternative to the sponge interpretation
Here are subfigures (a)-(b) of her Figure 2 showing the fossil network compared to that of a modern sponge (c), with the captions below (click photo to enlarge).
There are other pictures as well, but the first two are the heart of the matter. You may not think they look like much, but they do show the interconnecting, ramifying tubules with the light-colored calcite crystals typical of some groups of sponges. The area where these putative fossils are found is 890 million years old. And these fossils are older than the next oldest and indisputable sponge fossils by 350 million years!
Turner hypothesizes that these early organisms couldn’t compete with the reef-building cyanobacteria, but were able to find “oxygen oases” to use the oxygen produced by the cyanobacteria. The association of these putative sponges with oxygen-producing bacteria may be one piece of evidence that these are indeed metazoans, which of course require oxygen.
As I said, some paleobiologists disagree about whether these are animals. You can hear a ten-minute Nature-sponsored discussion with Turner, some supporters, and some doubters here. I highly recommend that you listen to this short but lucid discussion.
One other point: these organisms must have survived at least one of the periods of extensive glaciation and freezing known as “Snowball Earth“, when the entire planet was either completely frozen or almost covered with ice except for some open water. (The most extensive was between 700 and 600 million years ago.) In the linked article, author Laura Poppick says this about that period:
What did life on Earth look like at the time, and how did it change as a consequence of these events?
There were certainly bacteria and there were also algae and unicellular primitive animals, or protists.
There is also evidence that the first multicellular animals originated at this time, probably something like sponges.
Well, according to Turner, the first multicellular animals, probably something like sponges, originated nearly 200 million years earlier than this.
Stay tuned to see how the dispute about the nature of these fossils progresses. Are they animals or simply remnants of bacterial activity? As Turner says in the interview, “We are quite confident” that these are spongelike animals. “It’s almost,” she adds, “a no-brainer.”
And here’s Turner in the field:
Turner, E.C. 2021. Possible poriferan body fossils in early Neoproterozoic microbial reefs. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03773-z