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Concept: Fossil


Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor-hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada. These structures occur as micrometre-scale haematite tubes and filaments with morphologies and mineral assemblages similar to those of filamentous microorganisms from modern hydrothermal vent precipitates and analogous microfossils in younger rocks. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks contain isotopically light carbon in carbonate and carbonaceous material, which occurs as graphitic inclusions in diagenetic carbonate rosettes, apatite blades intergrown among carbonate rosettes and magnetite-haematite granules, and is associated with carbonate in direct contact with the putative microfossils. Collectively, these observations are consistent with an oxidized biomass and provide evidence for biological activity in submarine-hydrothermal environments more than 3,770 million years ago.

Concepts: Water, Sedimentary rock, Mineral, Rock, Geology, Hydrothermal vent, Fossil, Metamorphic rock


Preservation of soft-bodied organisms is exceedingly rare in the fossil record. One way that such fossils are preserved is as carbonaceous compressions in fined-grained marine sedimentary rocks. These deposits of exceptional preservation are known as Burgess Shale-type (BST) deposits. During the Cambrian Period, BST deposits are more common and provide a crucial view of early animal evolution. The earliest definitive fossil evidence for macroscopic animal-grade organisms is found in the preceding Ediacaran Period. BST deposits from the Ediacaran are rarer and lack conclusive evidence for animals. Here we report the discovery of a new Ediacaran BST deposit with exceptional preservation of non-mineralizing macro-organisms in thinly bedded black shale from Zavkhan Province, western Mongolia. This fossil assemblage, here named the Zuun-Arts biota, currently consists of two new species of probable macroscopic multicellular benthic algae. One species, Chinggiskhaania bifurcata n. gen., n. sp., dominates the biota. The other species, Zuunartsphyton delicatum n. gen., n. sp., is known from three specimens. SEM-EDS analysis shows that the fossils are composed of aluminosilicate clay minerals and some carbon, a composition comparable to fossils from the Cambrian Burgess Shale biota. This discovery opens a new window through which to view late Precambrian life.

Concepts: Evolution, Animal, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Cambrian, Burgess Shale


Trackways and tracemakers preserved together in the fossil record are rare. However, the co-occurrence of a drag mark, together with the dead animal that produced it, is exceptional. Here, we describe an 8.5 m long ammonite drag mark complete with the preserved ammonite shell (Subplanites rueppellianus) at its end. Previously recorded examples preserve ammonites with drag marks of < 1 m. The specimen was recovered from a quarry near Solnhofen, southern Germany. The drag mark consists of continuous parallel ridges and furrows produced by the ribs of the ammonite shell as it drifted just above the sediment surface, and does not reflect behaviour of the living animal.

Concepts: Sedimentary rock, Fossil, Calcite, Dinosaur, Bioerosion, Solnhofen limestone, Trace fossil, Nautilus


Carbonate concretions are known to contain well-preserved fossils and soft tissues. Recently, biomolecules (e.g. cholesterol) and molecular fossils (biomarkers) were also discovered in a 380 million-year-old concretion, revealing their importance in exceptional preservation of biosignatures. Here, we used a range of microanalytical techniques, biomarkers and compound specific isotope analyses to report the presence of red and white blood cell-like structures as well as platelet-like structures, collagen and cholesterol in an ichthyosaur bone encapsulated in a carbonate concretion from the Early Jurassic (~182.7 Ma). The red blood cell-like structures are four to five times smaller than those identified in modern organisms. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) analysis revealed that the red blood cell-like structures are organic in composition. We propose that the small size of the blood cell-like structures results from an evolutionary adaptation to the prolonged low oxygen atmospheric levels prevailing during the 70 Ma when ichthyosaurs thrived. The δ(13)C of the ichthyosaur bone cholesterol indicates that it largely derives from a higher level in the food chain and is consistent with a fish and cephalopod diet. The combined findings above demonstrate that carbonate concretions create isolated environments that promote exceptional preservation of fragile tissues and biomolecules.

Concepts: Electron, Oxygen, Carbon dioxide, Evolution, Transmission electron microscopy, Fossil, Jurassic, Ichthyosaur


The number of Late Pleistocene hominin species and the timing of their extinction are issues receiving renewed attention following genomic evidence for interbreeding between the ancestors of some living humans and archaic taxa. Yet, major gaps in the fossil record and uncertainties surrounding the age of key fossils have meant that these questions remain poorly understood. Here we describe and compare a highly unusual femur from Late Pleistocene sediments at Maludong (Yunnan), Southwest China, recovered along with cranial remains that exhibit a mixture of anatomically modern human and archaic traits. Our studies show that the Maludong femur has affinities to archaic hominins, especially Lower Pleistocene femora. However, the scarcity of later Middle and Late Pleistocene archaic remains in East Asia makes an assessment of systematically relevant character states difficult, warranting caution in assigning the specimen to a species at this time. The Maludong fossil probably samples an archaic population that survived until around 14,000 years ago in the biogeographically complex region of Southwest China.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Yunnan, Fossil, Human evolution, Dinosaur, Humans


We describe two new cynodonts from the early Late Triassic of southern Brazil. One taxon, Bonacynodon schultzi gen. et sp. nov., comes from the lower Carnian Dinodontosaurus AZ, being correlated with the faunal association at the upper half of the lower member of the Chañares Formation (Ischigualasto-Villa Unión Basin, Argentina). Phylogenetically, Bonacynodon is a closer relative to Probainognathus jenseni than to any other probainognathian, bearing conspicuous canines with a denticulate distal margin. The other new taxon is Santacruzgnathus abdalai gen. et sp. nov. from the Carnian Santacruzodon AZ. Although based exclusively on a partial lower jaw, it represents a probainognathian close to Prozostrodon from the Hyperodapedon AZ and to Brasilodon, Brasilitherium and Botucaraitherium from the Riograndia AZ. The two new cynodonts and the phylogenetic hypothesis presented herein indicate the degree to which our knowledge on probainognathian cynodonts is incomplete and also the relevance of the South American fossil record for understanding their evolutionary significance. The taxonomic diversity and abundance of probainognathians from Brazil and Argentina will form the basis of deep and complex studies to address the evolutionary transformations of cynodonts leading to mammals.

Concepts: Evolution, Phylogenetics, Brazil, South America, Fossil, Dinosaur, Paleorrota, Cynodonts


Formicidae) is increasingly well-understood due to recent phylogenetic analyses, along with estimates of divergence times and diversification rates. Yet, leading hypotheses regarding the ancestral habitat of ants conflict with new findings that early ant lineages are cryptic and subterranean. Where the ants evolved, in respect to habitat, and how habitat shifts took place over time have not been formally tested. Here, we reconstruct the habitat transitions of crown-group ants through time, focusing on where they nest and forage (in the canopy, litter, or soil). Based on ancestral character reconstructions, we show that in contrast to the current consensus based on verbal arguments that ants evolved in tropical leaf litter, the soil is supported as the ancestral stratum of all ants. We also find subsequent movements up into the litter and, in some cases, into the canopy. Given the global importance of ants, because of their diversity, ecological influence and status as the most successful eusocial lineage on Earth, understanding the early evolution of this lineage provides insight into the factors that made this group so successful today.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Evolution, Ecology, Soil, Bee, Ant, Fossil, E. O. Wilson


Modern selachians and their supposed sister group (hybodont sharks) have a long and successful evolutionary history. Yet, although selachian remains are considered relatively common in the fossil record in comparison with other marine vertebrates, little is known about the quality of their fossil record. Similarly, only a few works based on specific time intervals have attempted to identify major events that marked the evolutionary history of this group.

Concepts: Evolution, Phylogenetics, Batoidea, Fossil, Paleontology, Dinosaur, Shark, Chondrichthyes


We describe the physical context of the Dinaledi Chamber within the Rising Star cave, South Africa, which contains the fossils of Homo naledi. Approximately 1550 specimens of hominin remains have been recovered from at least 15 individuals, representing a small portion of the total fossil content. Macro-vertebrate fossils are exclusively H. naledi, and occur within clay-rich sediments derived from in situ weathering, and exogenous clay and silt, which entered the chamber through fractures that prevented passage of coarser-grained material. The chamber was always in the dark zone, and not accessible to non-hominins. Bone taphonomy indicates that hominin individuals reached the chamber complete, with disarticulation occurring during/after deposition. Hominins accumulated over time as older laminated mudstone units and sediment along the cave floor were eroded. Preliminary evidence is consistent with deliberate body disposal in a single location, by a hominin species other than Homo sapiens, at an as-yet unknown date.

Concepts: Human, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Erosion, Geology, Fossil, Silt, Taphonomy


Morphology-based phylogenetic analyses are the only option for reconstructing relationships among extinct lineages, but often find support for conflicting hypotheses of relationships. The resulting lack of phylogenetic resolution is generally explained in terms of data quality and methodological issues, such as character selection. A previous suggestion is that sampling ancestral morphotaxa or sampling multiple taxa descended from a long-lived, unchanging lineage can also yield clades which have no opportunity to share synapomorphies. This lack of character information leads to a lack of ‘intrinsic’ resolution, an issue that cannot be solved with additional morphological data. It is unclear how often we should expect clades to be intrinsically resolvable in realistic circumstances, as intrinsic resolution must increase as taxonomic sampling decreases. Using branching simulations, I quantify intrinsic resolution across several models of morphological differentiation and taxonomic sampling. Intrinsically unresolvable clades are found to be relatively frequent in simulations of both extinct and living taxa under realistic sampling scenarios, implying that intrinsic resolution is an issue for morphology-based analyses of phylogeny. Simulations which vary the rates of sampling and differentiation were tested for their agreement to observed distributions of durations from well-sampled fossil records and also having high intrinsic resolution. This combination only occurs in those datasets when differentiation and sampling rates are both unrealistically high relative to branching and extinction rates. Thus, the poor phylogenetic resolution occasionally observed in morphological phylogenetics may result from a lack of intrinsic resolvability within groups.

Concepts: Scientific method, Evolution, Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Paraphyly, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Fossil