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The Mysterious Life of One of Earth’s First Giant Organisms

Paleontologists unearthed a strange sight in Newfoundland in the early 2000s: an ancient fossil bed of frond-shaped organisms, some 571 million years old and up to two meters long.

Researchers had discovered these mysterious extinct creatures—called rangeomorphs—before, but they still do not know exactly what they are. “For 50 years the rangeomorphs have continued to confuse scientists as we try to understand how they lived and where they might have fitted in the ‘tree of life,’” explains Jack Matthews, a geology research fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Oxford. Some believe they may be primitive animals, but there is no consensus.

Nevertheless, scientists believe these bizarre-looking beings could help answer key questions about life on Earth, because they are “the oldest evidence we have for large, architecturally complex, multicellular life,” Matthews wrote in an e-mail to Scientific American. Now a recent study may support the hypothesis that Earth’s geochemistry allowed these organisms to grow into large, diverse shapes.