Researchers in Gabon are studying fossils containing signs of life dating back two billion years. To the un-trained eye, they are just stones. But for researchers from all over the world, it is a fabulous treasure trove.
Said Abderrazak El Albani a geologist from the University of Poitiers: “We took a sample or two, then back in France we went to a specialist and he told us, “Ok, you’re working on fossils that are 600 million years old!” so from then I knew we were onto something.”
These 600 million year-old fossils were excavated from earth which dated from 2 billion years ago. So scientists did further tests, using a three-dimensional scanner. There could be no further doubt; this find threw the chronology of the entire planet into question.
If we say that the first single cell organisms appeared 3 billion years ago, the complex forms of life that we knew about up until now dated from 600 million years ago. But the Gabon fossils push back the date of the appearance of multicellular life.
It’s a fundamental discovery for researchers and now they want to protect the site in Franceville, Gabon, because it could be the place where life on earth began.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Peru, another fossil was recently found by an international team of palaeontologists.
The ten teeth – the largest ever found – belonged to an ancestor of the sperm whale that roamed the seas some 12 million years ago and probably fed on other whales.
Said Rodolfo Salas, a palaeontologist from Peru’s Natural History Museum: “The fossil was discovered in 2008 and published in the magazine Nature. It’s the skull and jaw of a whale fossil that had very different characteristics from modern whales. This fossil was found in the desert within rocks that are more or less 12 million years old. Based on the size of the teeth, we are talking about a large predator. The thickness of the skull, the size of the jaw crater indicates it would have had very very strong jaw muscles.”
As well as ten teeth the size of a an adult man’s forearm, a team of French, Dutch, Belgian and Peruvian palaeontologists also found the whale’s skull and it’s lower jaw.
Rodolfo Salas: “This creature was without a doubt the biggest predator to have lived in the ocean. However, not necessarily the biggest in terms of size because there were whales that were larger but were not such active predators. The whales would feed on small invertebrates if this was the largest predator to have existed in the ocean.”
Although similar in size to the modern sperm whale, the Leviathan melvillei, which was named after Moby Dick’s author Herman Melville, was a hungry beast and fed on other whales.
The desert in southern Peru where the discovery was made in 2008 used to be – millions of years ago – the bed of a shallow sea. It’s an area that has yielded amazing discoveries for anthropologists studying prehistoric sea life.
But why did the Leviathan disappear? The reasons remain unknown. Maybe the huge predator simply became too big to hunt…?