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Soft Fossils

Jesse Broce

A rare fossil find offers a window into Cambrian life.

Story courtesy of Illumination Magazine

Though it happened over the course of some 30 million years, the “Cambrian Explosion” by all accounts saw an incredible eruption of marine life, an evolutionary outburst that heralded the arrival of almost every creature living on the planet today.

Scientists study life in the Cambrian period by using fossils found in places such as the much-celebrated Burgess Shale, a 500-million-year-old Canadian formation noted for its amazingly preserved specimens. Another fruitful fossil deposit is the Cambrian Shuijingtuo Formation, a mostly limestone fossil bed in China’s Hubei Province.

It was from samples found here that MU researcher Jesse Broce, a Huggins Scholar and doctoral candidate in geological sciences, along with his advisor James Schiffbauer, assistant professor of geological sciences, made a rare discovery — a cache of very old embryos. These “soft-tissue” fossils, the researchers say, could yield important clues about both the origins and the developmental biology of early animals. “Before the Ediacaran and Cambrian Periods, organisms were unicellular and simple,” says Schiffbauer. “The Cambrian Period, which occurred between 540 million and 485 million years ago, ushered in the advent of shells. Over time, shells and exoskeletons can be fossilized, giving scientists clues into how organisms existed millions of years ago. This adaptation provided protection and structural integrity for organisms.”

Read full story in Illlumination >>