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Scientists discover oldest evidence of mobility on Earth

February 11, 2019

Ancient fossils of the first ever organisms to exhibit movement have been discovered by an international team of scientists.

Discovered in rocks in Gabon and dating back approximately 2.1 billion years, the fossils suggest the existence of a cluster of single cells that came together to form a slug-like multicellular organism that moved through the mud in search of a more favourable environment.

The team, which included experts from Cardiff University, state that the new discovery places the first ever evidence of mobility on Earth to more than 1.5 billion years earlier than previously thought, and raises new questions regarding the history of life.

Previous discoveries dated the earliest traces of locomotion in complex organisms in much younger rocks dated at around 570 million years ago from various localities.

In a new study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team report finding similar trace movements for complex organisms that thrived 2.1 billion years ago in the Francevillian inland Sea.

A detailed 3D analysis using a non-destructive X-ray imagining technique, alongside geometrical and chemical dating, revealed that the new fossils belong to an organism that likely spent most of its time in oxygenated waters, and was therefore oxygen-dependent.

The fossils arepreserved as tubular structures running through the rock in thin layers with a consistent diameter of a few millimetres.

Located next to these tubular structures were fossilised microbial biofilms which, the researchers believe, acted as grazing grounds for the multicellular organisms.

Co-author of the study Dr Ernest Chi Fru, from Cardiff University's School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: "It is plausible that the organisms behind this phenomenon moved in search of nutrients and oxygen that were produced by bacteria mats on the seafloor-water interface.

"The results raise a number of fascinating questions about the history of life on Earth, and how and when organisms began to move. Was this a primitive biological innovation, a prelude to more perfected forms of locomotion seen around us today, or was this simply an experiment that was cut short?"
-end-
Notes to editors

1. For further information contact:
Michael Bishop
Communications & Marketing
Cardiff University
Tel: 02920 874499 / 07713 325300
Email: BishopM1@cardiff.ac.uk

2. Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain's leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK's most research intensive universities. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework ranked the University 5th in the UK for research excellence. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University's breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff's flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to pressing global problems. http://www.cardiff.ac.uk

Cardiff University

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