Laurentian University professor may have found the oldest fossil ever discovered

The geology and palaeontology worlds are abuzz thanks to a new paper from Laurentian University professor Dr. Elizabeth Turner.

Turner has discovered what may be the oldest fossil record of animal life – roughly 890 million years old -- in rocks she found in a remote stretch of the Northwest Territories.

She describes it as somewhat of an accidental discovery -- Turner had been studying microbial rocks (limestone made by cyanobacteria) at the time.

"In just a tiny handful of samples, I found something that really didn't fit -- it was much too complicated to be made by cyanobacteria," said Turner. "And not only was it weird and much too complicated, it actually looked vaguely familiar because it looked like the body fossils of sponges in much younger rocks."

Since it wasn't the focus of her original study, Turner set it aside for study at a later date. She became a professor at Laurentian, was able to secure new research funds, and returned to the site to get more samples.

"Even so, that wasn't enough because what I really needed was contextual work provided by others and that work was how sponges get preserved in rocks," Turner said. "They're not normal fossils … they're not like shells and bones and other exoskeletons."

It was that contextual work that allowed her to make the hypothesis she's included in her a paper titled 'Possible poriferan body fossils in early neoproterozoic microbial reefs.'

She said she may have found evidence of prehistoric sponges that are about 890 million years old.

"They're possible sponge fossils," Turner said. "My purpose in publishing this paper was to present this unusual information, which most people aren't familiar with, which is compelling to some types of people including sponge workers, present it... and set it free for the scientific community to evaluate, which is fine."

In terms of what this means for the big picture, she said 890 million years sounds like a long time, but when you compare it to other lines of evidence, it seems less shocking.

Turner said it's a given that sponges are some of the earliest forms of life, if not the earliest.

"When you think of normal fossils -- those are rocks that I use to teach my students -- they come from the hard parts of animals and all of them are younger than 542 million years old," she said.

By understanding a timeline, she said science will have a greater understanding of the evolutionary scale of animals, like sponges. It'll also show that the first animals evolved before a time when oxygen in the atmosphere and oceans reached a level scientists thought was necessary for animal life.

"This is pretty significant news," said Doug Tinkham, director of the Harquail School of Earth Sciences at Laurentian.

"Dr. Turner published a paper in the Journal of Nature which appears to show evidence in the oldest form of body life, so it'll make a change in our timetable in the evolution of life for sure."

Tinkham said this could provide clues to such things as the nature of the atmosphere and the nature of the climate at the time. The find, he said, could be a significant advancement in evolutionary science.

"It's very significant, particularly from a university the size of Laurentian University," he said. "You know, we have a lot of strong research going on within the unit and this is just one sign of that strength in research … but it comes at a very good time.

"Laurentian University has been in the news quite a bit going through the CCAA financial process, but this shows internally we have not stopped moving forward."