A microscopic bag-like sea creature found in China is believed to be our earliest known ancestor according to research published in the journal Nature. The 540 million year old microfossil, Saccorhytus coronarius, was analysed by a range of experts from several leading universities including Cambridge and Northwest, and is now thought to be the common ancestor of a very large range of species, including ours, as leading co-author Prof Simon Conway Morris explain, per Forbes:
“We think that as an early deuterostome this may represent the primitive beginnings of a very diverse range of species, including ourselves. To the naked eye, the fossils we studied look like tiny black grains, but under the microscope the level of detail is jaw-dropping. All deuterostomes had a common ancestor, and we think that is what we are looking at here.”
The team of scientists was able to isolate the microfossils from surrounding rock, and the specimen were so well preserved that several key features could be observed in detail, making S. coronarius one of the most important finds in recent scientific memory. What scientists found when analysing the creature was somewhat surprising.
The deuterosome was roughly a millimetre in size, had a large mouth capable of engulfing other creatures, primitive gills and lacked an anus. Additionally, scientists were able to discern that it had thin, flexible skin and some form of musculature, which helped it move around between grains of sand on the seabed.
It is fair to say that we have evolved quite a bit since the days that S. coronarius roamed the Earth! Who could have thought that such a small creature could help fill what was previously an empty link in our evolutionary timeline? Dr Degan Shu, another of the paper’s co-authors notes just how important this discovery has been to the world of genetics and science:
“Our team has notched up some important discoveries in the past, including the earliest fish and a remarkable variety of other early deuterostomes, (but) Saccorhytus coronarius now gives us remarkable insights into the very first stages of the evolution of a group that led to the fish, and ultimately, to us.”