Billion-Year-Old Fossil Fungi Push Back Records by Over 450 Million Years

Discovered in the Arctic of Canada, this fungus may be the oldest one ever found to date.

Billion-Year-Old Fossil Fungi Push Back Records by Over 450 Million Years
Microfossils of a spore excavated from the Canadian Arctic. Loron et al 2019

Fungus plays an integral part in our Earth's ecosystem and was discovered to be a part of our world millions of years prior to our existence. In fact, make that possibly a billion years ago. Microscopic fungi fossils were recently discovered by scientists in the Canadian Arctic, pushing back known records of fungi by over 500 million years.

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As published by a new study in Nature on Wednesday 22 May, the astonishingly delicate and intricate ur-fungi named Ourasphaira giraldae was found to contain chitin, a compound which can be found in fungal cell walls. Chitin is the earliest documented presence of a fibrous substance, also found in insects and fish.

This discovery may push back the wider timeline of evolution not only of fungi, but of animals on earth.

Fungi older than 500 million years

Up until now, the oldest found fossil fungi were discovered to be up to 450 million years old. This current discovery moves that date back by hundreds of millions of years.

If the discovery holds true, it would change the information we currently know about fungi's evolution, and thus whether or not they assisted in the progress of plants growing on land. 

Billion-Year-Old Fossil Fungi Push Back Records by Over 450 Million Years
A billion-year-old fungi microfossil includes the earliest documented presence of chitin, a fibrous substance found today not only in fungi cell walls but also arthropod exoskeletons and fish scales. Source: Loron et al 2019

Some scientists remain to be convinced, however. Mary Berbee, a mycologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, says “It looks to me as if there’s reason for believing it’s real at this point, but more data would be really useful.”

Billion-year-old discovery in the Canadian Arctic

The fossils were discovered a few years ago during a research expedition to the Canadian Arctic, in a shallow river estuary nestled amidst the impressive cliffs of the area, accessed via helicopter. Led by paleobiologist Corentin Loron of the University of Liège, Belgium, the team found that the fossils were impressively preserved thanks to the rocks in the region not being overexposed to high temperatures or pressures.

Scientists and laymen alike hope that this discovery is indeed correct. As Christine Strullu-Derrien of the Natural History Museum in London hopefully states "I would like to believe it,” she says. “That makes an important finding in the world — if it is really a fungus.”

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