Once again proving how important fossils are in our discovery of the world around us, a team of researchers discovered that the oldest land fossil in existence is a fungus. This is a huge discovery for a plentitude of reasons, including but not limited to the fact that it shows that this fungus was living on the land even before the first animals left the ocean.
Living on a totally different Earth that the one we know today, Tortotubus protuberans, as the fungus is called, lived on land at a very important time in Earth’s history. According to the study led by Martin Smith from the Durham University, Tortotubus is very much responsible for making our planet habitable.
Looking more like the moon or Mars thanks to its rocky and bare environment at the time, it was quite a while before Earth started looking anything like it does today. Befrore Tortotubus appeared, the only visible life forms were conglomerations of algae floating on the seas and oceans.
It was then that the fungi appeared, virtually reshaping the planet’s surface by generating soils rich in nutrients and providing other plants and organisms with sustainability. But this is by no measure the point where the benefits coming from Tortotubus stopped coming.
The fungi not only grew their root-like mycelium into the ground, preventing it from eroding, but they also started breaking down dead matter, transforming dead matter into nutrient-rich, life-sustaining fertilizer. This means that Tortotubus is also singlehandedly responsible for encouraging plant growth and diversification.
According to Smith, the lead researcher in the study,
By the time Tortotubus went extinct, the first trees and forests had come into existence. This humble subterranean fungus steadfastly performed its rotting and recycling service for some 70 million years, as life on land transformed from simple crusty green films to a rich ecosystem that wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical greenhouse today.
And it was apparently a stroke of luck that the fossil was even found in the first place. Not only do fungi leave fossils very rarely because of their tendency to turn immediately into mulch, but the current specimen is about as long as a human hair is thick. Understandably, it was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.
Smith, who received the 445 million-year-old fossil from North Africa, explained how lucky it was that the microscopic fossilized pieces of the fungus were found. First of all, the fossils must have been immediately covered by clay or silt after dying so that they remained preserved. The second stroke of luck was that researchers managed to find the microscopic fossilized fungus on a piece of rock collected for further study.
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