Pre-Cambrian Animal Life
The time before the Cambrian period is known as the Ediacaran Period (from about 635 million years ago to 543 million years ago), the final period of the late Proterozoic Neoproterozoic Era (Figure). Ediacaran fossils were first found in the Ediacaran hills of Southern Australia. There are no living representatives of these species, which have left impressions that look like those of feathers or coins (Figure). It is believed that early animal life, termed Ediacaran biota, evolved from protists at this time.
Most Ediacaran biota were just a few mm or cm long, but some of the feather-like forms could reach lengths of over a meter. Recently there has been increasing scientific evidence suggesting that more varied and complex animal species lived during this time, and likely even before the Ediacaran period.
Fossils believed to represent the oldest animals with hard body parts were recently discovered in South Australia. These sponge-like fossils, named Coronacollina acula, date back as far as 560 million years, and are believed to show the existence of hard body parts and spicules that extended 20–40 cm from the thimble-shaped body (estimated about 5 cm long). Other fossils from the Ediacaran period are shown in Figurea, b, c.
Another recent fossil discovery may represent the earliest animal species ever found. While the validity of this claim is still under investigation, these primitive fossils appear to be small, one-centimeter long, sponge-like creatures, irregularly shaped and with internal tubes or canals. These ancient fossils from South Australia date back 650 million years, actually placing the putative animal before the great ice age extinction event that marked the transition between the Cryogenian period and the Ediacaran period. Until this discovery, most scientists believed that there was no animal life prior to the Ediacaran period. Many scientists now believe that animals may in fact have evolved during the Cryogenian period.