Life Before Fossils

king-kong-killing-pterodactyl-1024x766Seeing may not always mean believing, but when it comes to living things from millions of years ago, it helps. A skeptic these days would have difficulty doubting the reality of dinosaurs given all the bones in museums and the reconstructions come to life in countless films. When embedded in an adventurous and romantic story, oversized reptiles and even King-Kong-size versions of our primate ancestors put persuasive passion and flesh on the cool scholarship of paleontologists.

The trouble is that the stuff of the usual fossil history—old bones, insects trapped in amber, hardened imprints of early plants–date back no more than 600 million years. Such a number may seem very old, but from another perspective it is not nearly old enough. For life has been traced back three billion years before that, six times further into the past. It’s not surprising that life from that long ago is not the material for theme parks or movies about entrepreneurs like Carl Denham who searched out Kong’s island. For life was small for the first three billion years, with no animals or plants as such. There were only microbes, single cells that gradually acquired the complexities of modern cell life—a nucleus, the hunger for oxygen, sexual reproduction. But there are no two-billion-year-old bones from which to reconstruct cellular giants, no fossils to serve as relics to fire the romantic imagination.

Or almost none.

Stromatolites in Australia, probably looking much as they did 3.5 billion years ago. (www2.estrellamountain.edu)

Microfossils from 3.5 billion years ago (www2.estrellamountain.edu)

To find them, you have to search for the oldest rocks. Try Australia, Greenland, or South Africa for those that date back almost four billion years. Slice them thin, put them under a microscope, look for microfossils measuring a fraction of a millimeter, their cell walls mineralized into tough material.

 

 

stromatolites layers pinterest

petrified stromatolite (pintrest)

 

 

And look for petrified stromatolites, the layered habitats of colonies of bacteria that filtered sea water for nutrients as far back as 3.5 billion years.

 

 

 

But could the tiny remains and traces of chemicals from billions of years ago become the attractions of crowded museums and movie fantasies? Could they find their place in popular culture as both entertainment and subtle education, as dinosaurs and apes have?

I believe they could.  It’s not difficult to imagine oversized reproductions of ancient microbes which kids could walk through while trying to avoid getting snagged on strands of DNA or thrown off-balance by the cell’s motion from its flagellum, its tail. And climate change sets the stage for a movie thriller about bacteria mysteriously resurrected from three billion years ago that thrive on carbon dioxide and for whom oxygen is poison.

Then our wonder at the marvels of our pre-human ancestors would reach back through the full history of life.

 

It’s Diversity All the Way Down

“The most impressive aspect of the living world is its diversity. No two individuals in sexually reproducing populations are the same, nor are any two populations, species, or higher taxa [categories of organisms]. Wherever one looks in nature, one finds uniqueness.” So wrote Ernst Mayr in This is Biology, published in 1997.

Grains of sand under an electron microscope (wikipedia)

Grains of sand 
(wikipedia)

Part of his statement was a new idea to me. Clearly each species differs from the next. But I had not fully absorbed the notion that every organism, if it reproduces in pairs, is different from every other individual in its species. (Single-cell organisms like bacteria that divide into identical clones are the exception.) Every individual grass plant, every fish, every pure-bred dog, every ant is as different from another of its species as two human neighbors are. And, as Mayr adds, that makes uniqueness the order of the day.

But what about  diversity and uniqueness in the non-biological, inanimate world? “Nature” includes not only living things but also rocks, water, air, light and other forces and materials. They seem to be unique in their own ways. Snowflakes are famously singular. Clouds change constantly. So does the surface of the ocean. Air flows and spins. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen two rocks that are identical. It’s a good bet that every asteroid, planet and star is different from others. Looking out over the desert, the ocean, or the skies, we always witness diversity in shape, motion, color and light if we look closely enough.

Diversity and fertility in grass (www.kvkcard.org)

(www.kvkcard.org)

Still, Mayr seems right that the diversity of living things  “impresses” us in a distinct way. Each organism succeeds at being alive, yet does so in a slightly different way from the others.

Moreover,  that booming variety, that hedge against species failure, comes on fast and strong. New life thrusts itself at us—in the new baby, in a puppy, among the trees springing up in corners of the yard, in the horde of ants and bees and birds of summer. In Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, “There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.”

Diversity multiplied by fertility.