A museum in St. John's will soon be hosting one of the most significant fossil discoveries made anywhere in the world.

An impression left by a small creature, fossilized in rock, dates back about 560 million years, astonishing scientific circles with the earliest evidence of animal muscle tissue on the planet. 

The fossil was first discovered six years ago in an ancient rock bed near Port Union, on Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula, but was not disclosed until this summer. 

Haootia Quadriformis fossil discovery in Port Union

An impression left by a life form, recently named Haootia quadriformis, likely pushes back the start of animal life to 560 million years ago. (CBC)

Alex Liu, of Cambridge University, and Jack Matthews, of Oxford University, were both students at the time of the discovery, surveying the rocks and fossils in the area.

Liu said the fossil was very nearly missed, when their supervisor spotted it near their feet.

"We were aware that it was very significant, but in terms whether it was an animal or any other particular thing, I don't think anything immediately popped into our heads," he said.

"Our first informal name for it was a Wrinkly M, because it has all these wrinkles to it, and it has a broad M shape … so we'd been calling it that for the last five years or so."

Pushing back beginning of animal life

The creature that left the impression has since been named Haootia quadriformis, after the Beothuk word for demon spirit and the creature's four-cornered shape.

'What we've learned in the years that we've been coming to Newfoundland, is that there's still so much out there to be discovered.' - Jack Matthews

"I think one of the closest comparisons is sort of a wine glass shape. You know, a disk, hold-fast disk," said Matthews.

"Then you have a stem, and then you have a bowl, and you can imagine the bowl as a kind of upside-down jellyfish."

And an early ancestor of the jellyfish it may be; the fossilized creature has the same muscle strands as seen in later jellyfish fossil discoveries.

According to Matthews and Liu, the discovery is just a part of continuing evidence that pushes the beginning of animal life further back in time than original estimates.

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)

Matthews said this discovery shows there is much more to be learned about the Earth's history and the evolution of animal life.

"What we've learned in the years that we've been coming to Newfoundland, is that there's still so much out there to be discovered," he said.

"We found things that have not been found before, and I'm certain that things will be found that we've missed and so I think people need to delve deeper into the geological record to see if these things can be found further back."

Matthews added there are likely things still to be discovered in areas already searched, if people revisit these sites.

Liu and Matthews hosted a showing and lecture at The Rooms on Wednesday night, and the exhibit is set to open in October.