The evidence from the drill core does not prove that large parts of the ocean remained free of sheet ice during the pre-Cambrian glaciation. It is statistically unlikely but possible, Olcott said, that the drill core found one of the tiny "refugia" for marine life whose existence is allowed under the "Snowball Earth" hypothesis.
But, she said, "finding the one anomalous spot would be quite unlikely," adding that the drill core came from an extensive formation of rocks with similar characteristics.
"At what point does an enormous refugium become open ocean?" she asked.
Skeptics also may argue that the rocks do not necessarily date to a glacial era, Olcott said. But her team found evidence of glacial activity in the samples, such as dropstones (continental rocks dropped by melting glaciers into marine deposits) and glendonites (minerals that only form in near-freezing water).
Objections aside, the paper's main contribution may be the application of new techniques to an old chestnut.
"Geologists don't necessarily think of looking for traces of microbes left in the rocks. This is the first direct look at the ecosystem during this time period," said Olcott, who credited USC's geobiology program, one of a handful in the country, with influencing her thinking.
"They really try to synthesize between geology and biology. It was a new way to attack the problem."
Corsetti agrees. "The climate of collaboration between geologists and biologists," he said, "is unusually good at USC ?it was this way of thinking that provided the impetus for the project in the first place."