While there’s more known about the early animals that dominated the food chains at that time, the smaller organisms around 500 million years ago are still relatively unstudied.
The ancient samples are thought to be the ancestors of algae we see todayiStock
Harvey’s research focuses on the microscopic creatures – and it all came about by chance.
While he was actually looking for animal skin in rocks using a microscope, he instead stumbled upon collections of geometric clusters, which he later concluded were ancient forerunners to algae.
“The cells were quite big, they formed quite a large colony that has this amazing geometry,” he said.
“It was just too mysterious. I didn’t even want to hazard a guess.”
According to Harvey’s findings, it’s evidence that the animals at that time filtered seawater for phytoplankton – which would mark the earliest evidence of them doing so, which is vital to the makeup of ocean ecosystems.
Like today’s life forms, it’s thought that chemical signals sent by nearby animals caused the ancient samples to divide and grow.
It also fills a space in the records of phytoplankton and helps to paint a well-rounded picture of evolution over time, given that the phytoplankton we see today only traces back around 200 million years ago.