A fossil that was discovered on Newfoundland could be the oldest complex animal and the earliest evidence of muscular tissue in the world.

The fossil, dating from about 560 million years ago, was discovered in the Port Union area on the Bonavista Peninsula in 2009 by a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and Memorial University in St. John's.

Artist reconstruction of Haootia quadriformis organism

This artist reconstruction of the organism shows its bundles of fibres in a four-fold symmetrical arrangement, similar to modern Cnidarians like jellyfish and sea anemones. (Submitted by Martin Brasier)

"It's amazing, because it is completely different from everything we'd seen before in the rocks in Newfoundland, both down at Mistaken Point [on the southern Avalon] and up on the Bonavista Peninsula," said Jack Matthews, an Oxford PhD candidate in geology. "Whereas everything else is what we call a frondose organism, this is completely different. 

"And we believe we've interpreted that it is a Cnidarian, so, of a similar nature to modern jellyfish, and corals, and sea anemones."

Matthews said the researchers have named the fossil Haootia quadriformis.

"The last part is a reflection of its four-fold symmetry, which is one the features we used to identify it as a Cnidarian," he said. 

"It's a strange looking beast. It looks a bit creepy. And 'haootia' is the Beothuk word for spirit or demon, so we thought we'd use that term."

The discovery was published on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Changing history

Matthews said the fossil is an important find.

"It shows to science that animals were around earlier than previously thought. There's been discussion for some time about when animals first appeared in the fossil record," he said.

The origin, evolution, and spread of animals has been viewed as starting in the Cambrian explosion, which was a time of rapid evolutionary development around 541 million years ago. That's when most major animal groups first appeared in the fossil record.
But now, this new fossil dates from the Ediacaran Period, from 635 to 541 million years ago.

Haootia quadriformis fibre bundles interpreted as muscle tissue

These are the bundles of fibres that the researchers have interpreted as muscle tissue. (Submitted by Alex Liu)

"There had been molecular evidence that animals appeared early, [but] we've now got the actual fossils to work alongside that molecular evidence," Matthews said. 

"And it's also the first example of muscular tissue preserved in the fossil record, which means that we now know these animals were moving, and they could react to their surroundings."

The Haootia quadriformis fossil is a rare find because it differs from all other Edicaran fossils. Instead of being a flat, sheet-like or frond-like creature, this organism has symmetrical fibrous structures — bundles of fibres in a four-fold symmetrical arrangement, similar to modern Cnidarians — that are interpreted as muscle tissue.

Fossil to be displayed

Matthews said the research group is working with the Newfoundland and Labrador government to preserve this important specimen.

"As I found out from the past week, there are many people who want to visit Newfoundland and see these amazing rocks and visit the fossils, so we need to make sure these are conserved. So, hopefully, working with the provincial government, we can bring about a Geopark — is one of the ideas that's on the table — and protect these fossils and really celebrate them," he said.

"We've made rubber copies of the fossil already, so that that can be put into museums. And hopefully, fingers crossed, this specimen can be preserved and put in The Rooms [museum in St. John's] so that it can be viewed by all scientists, but also tourists and local people can go and see this really, really important fossil."

'So there's a really big story to tell in Newfoundland about the origins of animals, and it's a top destination for scientists to come to view this important evolutionary transition in Earth's history.'- Jack Matthews

Matthews said the discovery shows that Newfoundland is a place to study the origins of animal life.

"We've known for some time that Mistaken Point is an important place, down by Trepassey, a really important place to study the origins of complex multicellular organisms, and whereas Fortune Head [on the Burin Peninsula] has the important geological boundary, the Pre-Cambrian/Cambrian boundary, we can now go over to Bonavista and we can see the first evidence for complex animals and we can see the first evidence for musculature," he said.

"So there's a really big story to tell in Newfoundland about the origins of animals, and it's a top destination for scientists to come to view this important evolutionary transition in Earth's history."

More work to be done

Matthews said there's still more work that's left to be done.

"I'm working with scientists back in the U.K. and at Memorial University to get a better understanding of the environments that these fossils lived in. And also, a more precise understanding of the age of these fossils, so working with the British Geological Survey to do the analysis on that. And that's both the Bonavista rocks and Mistaken Point," he said.

"Hopefully, we can then put them in their proper global geological context, so we can compare these rocks to rocks in Australia and China and Namibia in Africa."

Matthews said he hopes the fossil will spur more people to take a serious look at the rocks in Newfoundland, especially around the Port Union area and the Bonavista Peninsula.

"It's a really, really great area to go and find fossils, and there's certainly a lot more there to be found," he said.