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Discovery of giant roaming deep sea protist provides new perspective on animal evolution

AUSTIN, TexasGroove-like tracks on the ocean floor made by giant deep-sea single-celled organisms could lead to new insights into the evolutionary origin of animals, says biologist Mikhail "Misha" Matz from The University of Texas at Austin.

Matz and his colleagues recently discovered the grape-sized protists and their complex tracks on the ocean floor near the Bahamas. This is the first time a single-celled organism has been shown to make such animal-like traces.

The finding is significant, because similar fossil grooves and furrows found from the Precambrian era, as early as 1.8 billion years ago, have always been attributed to early evolving multicellular animals.

"If our giant protists were alive 600 million years ago and the track was fossilized, a paleontologist unearthing it today would without a shade of doubt attribute it to a kind of large, multicellular, bilaterally symmetrical animal," says Matz, an assistant professor of integrative biology. "We now have to rethink the fossil record."

The team's discovery was published online today in Current Biology and will appear in a subsequent print issue.

Most animals, from humans to insects, are bilaterally symmetrical, meaning that they can be roughly divided into halves that are mirror images.

The bilateral animals, or "Bilateria," appeared in the fossil record in the early Cambrian about 542 million years ago, quickly diversifying into all of the major animal groups, or phyla, still alive today. This rapid diversification, known as the Cambrian explosion, puzzled Charles Darwin and remains one of the biggest questions in animal evolution to this day.

Very few fossils exist of organisms that could be the Precambrian ancestors of bilateral animals, and even those are highly controversial. Fossil traces are the most accepted evidence of the existence of these proto-animals.

"We used to think that it takes bilateral symmetry to

Contact: Dr. Misha Matz
University of Texas at Austin

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