Marine animals found 20 million years earlier than expected

By | November 15, 2008

20081114_diatomsPhoto Credit: Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, USA. See this and other images by Prof. Taylor in the Smithsonian’s Science on Sphere exhibit in the new Sant Ocean Hall (Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Link, link, link.)

Though they are baffled as to how it got there, scientists have discovered a menagerie of perfectly intact marine micro-organisms trapped in tree resin at least 100 million years old.

The unexpected find in the Charente region of southwestern France pushes back by at least 20 million years the period when a type of single-cell algae known as diatoms are known to have appeared on Earth.the forest producing the amber was very near the coast. The tiny organisms, largely made up of prehistoric plankton, were either carried inland by strong winds or flood waters during a storm, the authors write.

“This discovery will deepen our understanding of these lost marine species as well as providing precious data about the coastal environment of western France during the Cretaceous Period,” which spanned from 145 to 65 million years ago, the researchers said.

It also challenges certain theories about the evolution of these organisms, and vindicates the research of molecular geneticists, said co-author Jean-Paul Saint Martin, a scientist at the National History Museum in Paris, France.

Using “molecular clocks,” biochemists move backward in time to figure out at what point in the evolutionary process certain plant and animal species split off into different branches.

“We had no record of these micro-organisms over a period of 20 million years. These fossils have filled that void in the most extraordinary manner,” said Saint Martin. -cosmos

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