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Nature. 2011 May 26;473(7348):505-9. doi: 10.1038/nature09943. Epub 2011 Apr 13.

Earth's earliest non-marine eukaryotes.

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Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Boston College, Weston, Massachusetts 02493, USA.


The existence of a terrestrial Precambrian (more than 542 Myr ago) biota has been largely inferred from indirect chemical and geological evidence associated with palaeosols, the weathering of clay minerals and microbially induced sedimentary structures in siliciclastic sediments. Direct evidence of fossils within rocks of non-marine origin in the Precambrian is exceedingly rare. The most widely cited example comprises a single report of morphologically simple mineralized tubes and spheres interpreted as cyanobacteria, obtained from 1,200-Myr-old palaeokarst in Arizona. Organic-walled microfossils were first described from the non-marine Torridonian (1.2-1.0 Gyr ago) sequence of northwest Scotland in 1907. Subsequent studies found few distinctive taxa-a century later, the Torridonian microflora is still being characterized as primarily nondescript "leiospheres". We have comprehensively sampled grey shales and phosphatic nodules throughout the Torridonian sequence. Here we report the recovery of large populations of diverse organic-walled microfossils extracted by acid maceration, complemented by studies using thin sections of phosphatic nodules that yield exceptionally detailed three-dimensional preservation. These assemblages contain multicellular structures, complex-walled cysts, asymmetric organic structures, and dorsiventral, compressed organic thalli, some approaching one millimetre in diameter. They offer direct evidence of eukaryotes living in freshwater aquatic and subaerially exposed habitats during the Proterozoic era. The apparent dominance of eukaryotes in non-marine settings by 1 Gyr ago indicates that eukaryotic evolution on land may have commenced far earlier than previously thought.

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