Feeding strategies of the oldest known animals (Ediacara)

Looking back 550 million years: How did the oldest animals feed? Researchers used biomarkers to study the gut contents of Ediacara communities.

The oldest animals appear in the fossil record among Ediacara biota about 570-550 million years ago. These organisms may help us understand how the modern animals, and eventually humans, came to exist. Most of the Ediacaran creatures were large, sometimes very large, up to 1.5 m long, with a complex architecture, and looked totally alien. While we are quite confident that most of them were animals of some sort, we are not exactly sure what sort of animals they were: from how they look, we cannot recognize them as direct ancestors of any creatures that live today. Hidden among these strange giants, we sometimes find animals that may look familiar. For example, Kimberella strongly resembles a sea slug, albeit one that for some reason crawls backwards. There are also remains of tube worms, such as Sabellidites and Calyptrina, which look as if some tube worms never changed in the 550 million years of evolution.

How did these animals come to evolve, and how similar were they to animals that live today? What did they do, how and what did they eat? The last question may be especially important as nutrition could be the main limiting factor in the early animal evolution: bacteria simply cannot sustain animals, which need algae or other complex organisms in their diet.

We use a nonconventional way to study the remains of these oldest animals. Instead of examining how they look, we found a way to analyse what is left from the molecules that constructed their bodies, called biomarkers. We mainly focus on the fossilized fat, the remains of cholesterol and similar molecules. Previously, we have used this technique to confirm that the alien-looking Ediacaran creature called Dickinsonia was indeed one of our animal ancestors.

In the new study, we were able to distinguish the molecular signature of the last meal preserved within the guts of the slug-like Kimberella and the tube worm Calyptrina. Whereas Kimberella was scraping the microbial mats that covered the ancient seafloor, and Calyptrina was catching what floated in sea water, both animals shared a mixed diet of green algae and bacteria. Despite their ancient age, their sterol metabolism and the way they digested food was already comparable to extant sea animals. In contrast, we determined that Dickinsonia did not have a gut at all and used some other feeding mechanism, possibly external digestion, analogous to extant Placozoa or sea stars.

Overall, lipid biomarkers uncover a range of feeding strategies in Ediacaran communities, highlighting true animal physiology of some Ediacaran creatures. However strange these organisms looked, it seems that the roots of the animal lineage are to be found yet deeper in time.

Original study: Bobrovskiy, Ilya & Nagovitsyn, Aleksey & Hope, Janet & Luzhnaya, Ekaterina & Brocks, Jochen. (2022). Guts, gut contents, and feeding strategies of Ediacaran animals. Current biology: CB. 10.1016/j.cub.2022.10.051.

Note: The lead author of the study is currently a reseacher at the GFZ, but conducted this study as part of his work at the Australian National University. 

Scientific contact

Dr. Ilya Bobrovskiy

Media contact

Additional News

Portrait Lars Bernard, green background

The Board of Trustees appoints Prof. Lars Bernard to the Scientific Advisory Board of the…

Portrait photo of Harald Schuh, background: green

AGU Award for Harald Schuh

The glass building with flagging "IASS" at Helmholtzstraße 5.

An ideal addition to the Helmholtz Association

SLR Station, Laser

New DFG Research Unit “Clock Metrology: A Novel Approach to TIME in Geodesy” with GFZ…

Niels Hovius portrait

Niels Hovius appointed to the renowned "National Academy of Science and Engineering –…

[Translate to English:] GFZ-Logo

GFZ's position on the Leopoldina paper “Earth System Science”

Portraits of the five young researchers

EGU OSPP Awards 2022 to five GFZ researchers

[Translate to English:] Lila Flagge wehend über einem Dachgiebel

Interviews on the occasion of the Purple Light Up 2022

Obituary picture of Dr. Kemâl Erbas.

Obituary Dr. Kemâl Erbas

Two profile photos and in between the logo of BMWK and a symbol image for a text document.

Important signal for the expansion of deep geothermal energy

German map with quality-checked data points, shown as columns

A new heat-flow analysis shows higher values for Germany

P. Martinez-Garzon in a forest next to a giant split rock

Dr. Patricia Martinez-Garzon wins ERC Starting Grant for her project QUAKE-HUNTER

Map of Türkiye with the marked epicentre of the earthquake in the northwestern part of the country

Background on today's earthquake in northwest Türkiye

Topography map of the alps.

What is driving the Alps upwards?

Groupp picture ICDP/IODP Kolloquiums

Joint IODP/ICDP-Colloquium at GFZ

Teachers in lecture hall during lecture

"Extreme Events in the Earth System" - 20th "System Earth" Autumn School

Two young researchers stand in front of trees holding their certificates, next to them stands Ludwig Stroink, who awarded the certificates.

“GFZ Friends” honours Theresa Hennig and Lei Wang with the “Friedrich-Robert-Helmert Prize…

Satellite image of a desert area: Colorful spots show different minerals.

German environmental satellite EnMAP: start into regular operation

On the left, a measuring tower in a low overgrown tundra landscape.

More methane from Siberia in summer

[Translate to English:] Profilfoto mit schwarzem Rahmen von Henning Francke

Obituary: Henning Francke

Group photo with projekt responsible

Making geodata interoperable and suited for curiosity driven research: GEO-INQUIRE project…

Schema Energiebereitstellung durch Geothermie

European Geothermal Congress from 17 to 21 October 2022 in Berlin

Gruppenfoto PAM

International Conference on Polar and Alpine Microbiology

Leni Scheck Wenderoth

“AWG Professional Excellence Award” for Magdalena Scheck-Wenderoth

Ausbildung am GFZ

Berufsausbildung und duales Studium am GFZ

Dr. Ute Weckmann during the opening speech of the workshop

Dr. Ute Weckmann takes over the chairmanship of IAGA Division VI

Anke Neumann aon a boat during a research trip

Dr Anke Neumann is a Senior Humboldt Research Fellow

Earth Model

New DFG priority programme on deep Earth evolution over geologic time

Logo of the Helmholtz Innovation Labs: written words only

Successful interim evaluation of the two Helmholtz Innovation Labs at the GFZ

Schematic of plunging Earth plates under the ocean with water transport and the Al molecules involved: This is how water migrates deeper into the Earth than previously assumed.

Water is seeping deeper into Earth than expected

back to top of main content