Microbial mats may have given early animals breathing room

Canadian ponds and Venezuelan lagoons inspire a hypothesis about ancient life

Like exhausted nightclubbers, early animals may have weathered their harsh lifestyle by squirming up to the oxygen bar.

SCUBA DIVER An insect larva peeks out of a glob of bacteria. Like this modern youngster, early animals may have survived rough waters by inhaling the oxygen churned out by such microbial mats. Stefan Lalonde

Animals living more than 550 million years ago could have survived inhospitable oceans by associating with dense mounds of cyanobacteria called microbial mats, an international team of researchers argues in a new study. Such clumps of oxygen-producing gunk could have supplied the first mobile animals with food to eat and air to breathe, the group reports online May 15 in Nature Geoscience.

The animal kingdom’s vanguard would have needed all the help it could get. Recent fossil finds show that wriggling animals first emerged at least 555 million years ago, when atmospheric oxygen concentrations may have been about one-tenth what they are today. Yet as creatures moved around more, they needed more oxygen. So how early mobile critters, which probably resembled worms or slugs, eked out a living in these choked environments has been a big puzzle for paleontologists, says study coauthor Murray Gingras. “Biomats provided the oxygen that ironically enabled the animals to better exploit biomats as food,” he says.

He got his first clue after drilling into a frozen pond in Alberta, Canada. The pond, almost entirely deprived of oxygen, hosted a small number of insect larvae surrounding a layer of photosynthesizing algae. “They were eating the biological material, and they were using it as a scuba tank at the same time,” says Gingras, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Alberta’s frozen lakes don’t look much like ancient oceans, however, so Gingras and his colleagues turned to supersalty lagoons in Venezuela. Here, gelatinous masses of cyanobacteria, a type of oxygen-producing microbes with ancient origins, clog the waters. Animals first evolved in a similar “world ruled by microorganisms,” Gingras says, in which microbial mats like these may have dominated shallow oceans across the globe. In fact, he adds, the oldest discovered fossil trace of animal life depicts the tooth marks of a long-dead creature biting into such a mound of bacteria.

The modern lagoons, like their ancient counterparts, carry few traces of oxygen. But the gas does run high — reaching near or above typical water levels — right above and below the mats, the team discovered. These lagoons usually host scant animal life but, as in Alberta, clusters of insect larvae gather around the mats, taking bites and maybe breaths. The first mobile animals easily could have done the same, Gingras says.

“In a way, it’s dead obvious,” says Mary Droser, a paleontologist at the University of California, Riverside.

But ancestral animals didn’t necessarily need scuba gear, suggests Donald Canfield, a geobiologist at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Ancient critters may not have had the same insatiable need for air that most modern animals do, he explains. Even today, marine worms and other animals flourish in deep ocean habitats where oxygen is thin. Exploring how these worms survive, Canfield adds, may give scientists insight into how the first creatures with wanderlust grabbed a foothold in an unwelcoming world.

From the Nature Index

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