The Pre-Cambrian Animal Life

Table A describes eras in earth's history. The earth's history is divided into four eons, the Pre Archean, Archaea, Proteozoic, Phanerozoic. The oldest eon, the Pre Archean, spans the beginning of earth's history to about 3.8 billion years ago. The Archean eon spans 2.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, and the Proterozoic spans 570 million to 2.5 billion years ago. The Pharenozoic eon, from 570 million years ago to present time, is sub divided into the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. The Paleozoic era, from 240 to 570 million years ago, is further divided into seven periods: the Cambrian from 500 to 570 million years ago, the Ordovician from 435 to 500 million years ago, the Silurian from 410 to 435 million years ago, the Devonian from 360 to 410 million years ago, the Missisippian from 330 to 360 million years ago, the Pennsylvanian from 290 to 330 million years ago, and the Permian from 240 to 290 million years ago. The Mesozoic era, from 66 to 240 million years ago, is divided into three periods, the Triassic from 205 to 240 million years ago, the Jurassic from 138 to 205 million years ago, and the Cretaceous, from 66 to 138 million years ago. The Cenozoic era, from 66 million years ago to modern times, is divided into two eras, the Tertiary and the Quaternary. The tertiary period spans 66 to 1.6 million years ago. The quaternary period spans 1.6 million years ago to modern times. Illustration B shows geological periods in a spiral starting with the beginning of earth's history at the bottom and ending with modern times at the top. The diversity and complexity of life increases toward the top of the spiral.
An evolutionary timeline. (a) Earth’s history is divided into eons, eras, and periods. Note that the Ediacaran period starts in the Proterozoic eon and ends in the Cambrian period of the Phanerozoic eon. (b) Stages on the geological time scale are represented as a spiral. (credit: modification of work by USGS)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The time before the Cambrian period is known as the Ediacaran Period (from about 635 million years ago to 543 million years ago), the final period of the late Proterozoic Neoproterozoic Era. Ediacaran fossils were first found in the Ediacaran hills of Southern Australia. There are no living representatives of these species, which have left impressions that look like those of feathers or coins. It is believed that early animal life, termed Ediacaran biota, evolved from protists at this time.

Most Ediacaran biota were just a few mm or cm long, but some of the feather-like forms could reach lengths of over a meter. Recently there has been increasing scientific evidence suggesting that more varied and complex animal species lived during this time, and likely even before the Ediacaran period.

Fossils believed to represent the oldest animals with hard body parts were recently discovered in South Australia. These sponge-like fossils, named Coronacollina acula, date back as far as 560 million years, and are believed to show the existence of hard body parts and spicules that extended 20–40 cm from the thimble-shaped body (estimated about 5 cm long).

Part a shows a fossil that resembles a wheel, with spokes radiating out from the center, imprinted on a rock. Part b shows a fossil that resembles a teardrop shaped leaf, with grooves radiating out from a central rib. Part c shows a fossil that is much longer than it is wide, with many small ribs and a tail.
Ediacaran fauna. Fossils of (a) Cyclomedusa (up to 20 cm), (b) Dickinsonia (up to 1.4 m), (and (c) Spriggina (up to 5 cm) date to the Ediacaran period (543-635 MYA). (credit: modification of work by “Smith609”/Wikimedia Commons)

Another recent fossil discovery may represent the earliest animal species ever found. While the validity of this claim is still under investigation, these primitive fossils appear to be small, one-centimeter long, sponge-like creatures, irregularly shaped and with internal tubes or canals. These ancient fossils from South Australia date back 650 million years, actually placing the putative animal before the great ice age extinction event that marked the transition between the Cryogenian period and the Ediacaran period. Until this discovery, most scientists believed that there was no animal life prior to the Ediacaran period. Many scientists now believe that animals may in fact have evolved during the Cryogenian period.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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