Scientists Unearth ‘Mind-Blowing’ Haul of 500 Million-Year-Old Fossil in China

May 16, 2019 Updated: May 24, 2019

An accidental discovery has unearthed an incredible collection of thousands of fossils on a river bank in China. Paleontologists are estimating that the fossils are about 518 million years old and are extraordinary for their documentation of soft-bodied organisms. Skin, eyes, and even internal organs have been “exquisitely” well preserved.

“What these localities give you is anatomy,” Harvard paleontologist Joanna Wolfe told National Geographic. “These are the best of the best.”

Reportedly, researchers have thus far identified 101 different animal species, and more than half of the discovered fossils are new to science.

The ancient fossils were collected from the site of Qingjiang, near Danshui river in China’s Hubei Province. The BBC wrote enthusiastically of the paleontologists’ “mind-blowing” findings, estimated to be from the tremendously abundant Cambrian period, which began some 541 million years ago. In the few tens of millions of years that followed, “complex marine ecosystems sprung up all around the world,” National Geographic informed, “teeming with creatures that form the base of today’s major animal groups.”

The team who collected the specimens published their findings in the journal Science in late March of 2019.

A fifth of the approximately 20,000 total specimens that were recovered were expertly analyzed. Harder bodily substances such as bone are less likely to decompose, so scientists were delighted to be able to identify soft-bodied worms, jellyfish, sea anemones, and even algae from their fossilized impressions.

All are “a very important source in the study of the early origins of creatures,” according to fieldwork leader Professor Xingliang Zhang from China’s Northwest University, who spoke to the BBC.

Prof. Zhang ventured that the Qingjiang fossil contingent must have been “rapidly buried in sediment” after a storm, owing to the extraordinary quality of visible soft-tissue impressions. Professor Robert Gaines, a geologist who partook in the study, was bowled over. “Their sheer abundance and their diversity of forms is stunning,” he said.

Professor Allison Daley, who contributed a paleontological analysis to the proceedings, readily admitted: “It blew my mind.”

Speaking to BBC’s Science in Action, she added: “I never thought I’d get to witness the discovery of such an incredible site … For the first time we’re seeing preservation of jellyfish. [When] you think of jellyfish today,” she continued, “they’re so soft-bodied, so delicate, but they’re preserved unbelievably well at this site.”

The team has their work cut out for them documenting the remaining 16,000-odd specimens, but the heady scent of excitement fills the air. Researchers are taking steps to protect the Qingjiang site, as further detailed exploration of the region of Hubei Province will reap even more information about the Cambrian ecosystem and the amazing fossilization of soft-tissued creatures.

“Biotic diversity today is something that we take for granted,” Prof. Gaines lamented, “even though there are indications that extinction rates are sharply increasing.” However, he fervently hopes that this recent discovery “reminds us of our deep kinship to all living animals.”

Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist at the University of Bristol, indicated to Current Biology that the treasure hunt isn’t over yet. “It’s a Pandora’s box,” he said. “Every time we find a new site like this. There’s still many gaps.”

“There’s still many weird wonders.”

Illustration – Shutterstock | A_Lesik