Mystery of the First Animals

We’ve all heard about one of the great mysteries in paleontology: dinosaurs. They disappear from the fossil record without a trace. The disappearance of dinosaurs proved difficult for many scientists to explain until geological thinking became more comfortable with the idea of global catastrophes. Dinosaurs get all the attention, but a different kind of mystery cloaks the other end of the fossil record: the Ediacaran.

For over a century, most people thought the lowest examples of animal life were in the Cambrian rocks because they contained the first life forms with “hard parts.” Think trilobites. Like most other people in his generation, Charles Darwin identified these rocks as the first examples of life in the fossil record. In the next hundred years or so, however, paleontologists found some strange fossils belonging to the lower Cambrian.

Or did they really belong to the lower Cambrian? Over the years, more fossils began to pop up in places like Canada, Namibia (Africa), and England. Finally, the mother lode was discovered in Australia’s remote Ediacara Hills in the 1940s. Paleontologists slowly began to realize that whole communities of creatures lay buried below the Cambrian. But then the next problem arose: how do you classify them? They were different from anything seen prior. The title of a 1984 Science article suggests some truth: “Alien Beings Here on Earth.” They were alien in the sense of having fundamental differences, yet still recognizable in terms of biological organization we find familiar.

How’d they get here, and where’d they go? Debates still rage among paleontologists. Were they “dead ends” of evolution, or is the fossil record too incomplete to reveal their similarities with creatures in the Cambrian? The creation model — which proposes that God created unique seafloor communities during Creation Week that were later destroyed during the Flood — may provide a clue.

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