A Canadian geologist may have unearthed the oldest animal fossil ever to exist after discovering an ancient ocean sponge dating back 890 million years, according to a study in Nature published Wednesday.
The study, which outlines findings made by Laurentian University professor Elizabeth Turner, explains that the potential discovery is “the next-youngest undisputed sponge body fossils by approximately 350 million years.” (RELATED: Park Ranger Finds One Of The Largest Fossil Collections In California’s History)
Turner discovered the fossils in a remote region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, accessible only by helicopter, that she has been excavating since the 1980s, The Associated Press (AP) reported. While the area features steep mountains in 2021, it was once a prehistoric, marine environment, according to Turner’s study.
In an interview with USA Today, Turner explained that discovery could hint at life before humans populated the Earth. “What happened before, and what was it like? How did it begin?” she said. “This is really digging into that. I’m shaking up the apple cart.”
If Turner’s discovery is confirmed, it would mean that these sponge animals survived widespread ice ages and would have existed before scientists believed that there was enough oxygen to support animal life, according to the study. (RELATED: Reindeer Herders Find ‘Completely Preserved’ Ice Age Cave Bear Remains In Russia)
As of now, the oldest, undisputed fossils date back to around 540 million years ago, The AP noted. While scientists believe life on Earth emerged nearly 3.7 billion years ago, the earliest animals are believed to have appeared much later, although the exact date is debated, according to the outlet.
Turner told USA today that she’s prepared to be met with critics that question her findings due to the Earth’s oxygen levels and the conditions faced by the sponges during that time period.
“Here I am saying, ‘Uh-oh, the first animals appeared before that.’ So they didn’t require that oxygen. So people may be not so comfortable with it,” Turner explained.
The fossils discovered by Turner appear similar to skeletons found in some modern sponges, which resemble segments that look connected like tree branches, according to USA Today. While the discovery is significant for the scientific community, Turner understands that it doesn’t establish a full picture.
“This is not the holy grail,” she noted. “It’s just a step toward a better view on animal evolution.”