Giant roaming Protist provides new perspective on evolution

Groove-like tracks on the ocean floor made by giant deep-sea single-celled organisms could lead to new insights into the evolutionary origin of animals, says biologist Mikhail “Misha” Matz.

Matz and his colleagues recently discovered the grape-sized protists and their complex tracks on the ocean floor near the Bahamas. This is the first time a single-celled organism has been shown to make such animal-like traces.

The finding is significant, because similar fossil grooves and furrows found from the Precambrian era, as early as 1.8 billion years ago, have always been attributed to early evolving multicellular animals.

“If our giant protists were alive 600 million years ago and the track was fossilized, a paleontologist unearthing it today would without a shade of doubt attribute it to a kind of large, multicellular, bilaterally symmetrical animal,” says Matz, an assistant professor of integrative biology. “We now have to rethink the fossil record.”

We used to think that it takes bilateral symmetry to move in one direction across the seafloor and thereby leave a track,” explains Matz. “You have to have a belly and a backside and a front and back end. Now, we show that protists can leave traces of comparable complexity and with a very similar profile.”

I’m gobsmacked. I’ve never seen a one-celled animal that large. Never anything larger than a paramecium.

Cripes. You could keep these critters as pets.

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