In 1992 and 1993, we set out with our
Russian colleagues to go to a place on the White Sea, which is
1000 kilometers north of Moscow and is an arm of the Arctic Ocean.
We chartered this vessel, believe it or not, for $400 for two
trips up and back, which is a day and a night. This was in the
good old days when the Russians really needed $400. The only
problem is, you had to take the boat the way it was and the captain
was drunk when we arrived early in the morning and he didn't sober
up for eight hours, so we couldn't leave until 6:00 in the afternoon,
putting us ashore at 3:00 a.m. We took a group of interested
people through UC's University Research Expeditions (UREP),
and we went up the coast to look at these rocks, the so-called
Vendian rocks. These rocks looked like the rocks you might
see around here from the Miocene age. In fact, they have the
same degree of consolidation. In other words, they're not very
hard. They contain a whole assemblage of these first animals.
But these are very much later than the things
that I just described for you. So these are about a billion years
after the appearance of the first indication of Eukaryotes in
the fossil record and they're about three billion years after
the first evidence for life, bacteria, in the stromatolites in
Australia. So you see, the world really was dominated time-wise
that way. Here's our camp along the shore of the White
Sea. I think this would be a great TV thing because this big
mass of foam just came pulsating up onto the beach as a storm
was generated on the White Sea; it came pulsating all the way
through our camp. It eventually went up this canyon. It's like
the primordial soup, at least the frothy part of it, moving up,
wiping out our cooking tent with Misha Fedonkin and Jim Valentine.
There's our camp up above. Both of those two guys would
make good characters too, on TV. And here we are. I guess maybe
this wouldn't be too good on NBC, would it? Unless we were doing
So here's the rock and you can see how
crumbly it is, and our group collecting along the shore here.
This was an adventure that surely is worth a short segment on
TV. One episode on Friends. How many of you have seen
Friends? They have a paleontologist on there. That's a
good program, right? Believe it or not, I do know one or two
paleontologists like that guy on Friends but the rest of
us aren't like that. We actually go out and look for fossils
and we look in places along the White Sea like that and like this.
The kinds of fossils we found were these kinds of little
indentations in the surface of the rock. These are said to be
the burrows of sea anemones or sea anemone-like critters. It's
called Nemiana. We have other kinds of cnidarians, coelenterates
in the old term. For example these jellyfish-like animals
from rocks, again, probably 580 million years old, maybe 560 million
years old. The dating is a little bit bad on these but similar
things in other places of the world date at those ages.
Here's another one. This one seems to
have tentacles. That's pretty amazing. Here are some other ones.
This is one of four different groups of fossils.
- Medusoid-like fossils
These so-called medusoid-like fossils, or cnidarian-like fossils--jellyfish
and sea anemones. There are other groups, as well, which we'll
see in a moment. This is kind of a questionable one. It's
a little tiny thing, as you can see, and it's got little tentacle-like
things, but this could also have been a burrow, if you can imagine
it, with an animal down in there putting its tentacles out and
feeding on the surface of the mud, dragging its tentacles back,
making those marks. That might not be a true body fossil, it might
be a trace fossil. So there's a lot to be discovered here still.
- Frond-like animals
A second group of organisms are the frond-like
animals. Here's a great big one. This is Charnia.
These were originally thought to be like sea pens; I still kind
of think they're like sea pens. Other people think that they're
a completely different group of organisms totally unrelated to
any other animals that went extinct after the end of this particular
period of time. Here's another one that we collected.
There are a number of different kinds of these frond-like animals.
Here's a Dickinsonia. These things are really big.
You can find them in Australia a meter long with these things
going out. We don't really know what that is. It's been speculated
to be a kind of cnidarian, as well. And here's yet another one,
Pteridinium.. It's got trilateral symmetry. This is one
of three lobes of it, but it's still standing up somehow
like a frond, feeding presumably on the organisms that are floating
in the water, and there were some.
- Trace fossils
A third group of fossils in this group of rocks
worldwide are trace fossils. Here are some burrowing structures
made by some kind of an organism and it made a little furrow in
it. These tracks, like that and like these, are your ancestors!
This is where all the rest of the metazoans must have come from.
They didn't come from the coelenterates, or cnidarians that we
see here; that seems to be a dead end. They didn't come from
the frond-like animals. They must have come from these things.
But we don't find much in the way of fossils for them.
Here's some from Southeastern California, from the White-Inyo
Mountains, of about the same age. Lots of tracks and traces making
loops, presumably slug-like or worm-like animals feeding on the
surface. Some of them left fecal pellets or filled burrows
- Unusual Fossils
There is a fourth group of organisms besides
these three and that's a group that really is not coherent in
the sense that the others are as fossils, but these are very unusual
things that might actually be body fossils of some kind of higher
organism perhaps This thing has a certain resemblance to
arthropods. You can see the plate-like scars here. We don't
know what it is yet because it hasn't been very well studied but
it's been described roughly. Here's another one. This
is called Kimberella. Kimberella made it onto the
cover of Earth magazine. This is how I found out that
there are 100,000 people that read it. The reason I was interested
in it is because my student, Ben Waggoner, and Misha Fedonkin,
one of the guys you saw before who we've been collaborating
with, have described this as a mollusk, probably, a slug-like
creature. You can see here was the foot, there were lateral structures
on it, and it was soft-bodied. They now have about a dozen or
more, slightly more, impressions of this that look very much like
that. So there's a variety of these kinds of fossils that might
indicate, in fact, that there were metazoans, fairly highly classified
anyway, metazoans, in the fossil record before this great explosion
that Darwin was puzzled about and that Time Magazine managed
to do a cover on.
Well, around this time there was a group of
phytoplankton, photosynthesizing algae and that made cysts, like
many algae in oceans do today, and these are fossil cysts.
This one happens to come from the Chuar Group and it's about
850 million years old. But we see these things throughout this
period of time from 1.4 or 1.5 to the base of the Cambrian at
545 million years ago. They are, generally speaking, rather simple
in their morphology and you can see little spines. This is the
kind of things that all these metazoans may have been feeding
on. After all, they need something to eat. There were bacterial
mats they could have fed on and then there was phytoplankton.
Maybe there were some other things, too, that just didn't fossilize.