The Natural History Reader in Evolution

By Niles Eldredge | Go to book overview

19
A Living Fossil

ARTHUR W. GALSTON

Imagine the emotions of a paleontologist, long a student of dinosaur evolution, who suddenly encountered a live Brontosaurus, Triceratops, or Tryannosaurus. That is roughly what happened about ten years ago to Sanford Siegel, a University of Hawaii botanist, when he examined the microorganisms of a sample of soil he had gathered near the wall of Harlech Castle in Wales. When he cultured that soil sample in the presence of concentrated ammonium hydroxide, which greatly inhibits or arrests the life processes of most conventional cells, the medium triggered the growth of microscopic clusters of star-shaped bodies attached to slender stalks. Each body, about 5 micrometers (0.0002 inch) in diameter, closely resembled pictures Siegel had seen of a recently discovered fossil microorganism. But as far as he knew, no living specimens of this organism had ever been described. With the help of the fossil's discoverer, Elso Barghoorn of Harvard University, Siegel was able to establish, in a strange sequence of paleobotanical events, that he had found a living relative of an organism first described as a fossil.

Barghoorn had made his own discovery while gathering specimens of ancient rocks in a search for primitive organisms. One specimen of chert, or flintlike rock, from Kakabek in Ontario, Canada, contained peculiar umbrellalike forms that seemed regular enough in physical appearance and structure to be considered microorganisms, rather than a pattern that had developed as the rock formed. Barghoorn named these microorganisms Kakabekia umbrellata, meaning umbrellalike form from Kakabek.

Since the rocks in which Barghoorn's forms appeared dated from the middle Precambrian period, about two billion years ago, the microorganisms were among the oldest of all plantlike fossils. Siegel's discovery of a living relative of Barghoorn's fossils established a remarkable thread of biological history. Siegel named his creature Kakabekia barghoorniana in honor of his colleague.

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