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These Mushroom-Shaped Sea Critters Could Represent Some Of The Earliest Known Forms Of Life

<p><a class="checked-link" href="http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/emb/78548.php?from=275851" style="text-decoration: none;">Just et al.</a></p>

The two latest additions to the animal kingdom - at least the ones scientists have found - look sort of like mushrooms, if mushrooms were made out of Jell-O and had stomachs running down their stalks.

Called Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides, these animals were collected off the coast of Australia in 1986, some 1,300 to 3,300 feet below the surface of the ocean. After roughly 30 years, the researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, were finally able to determine that there were, in fact, new species in their collection. Although resembling jellyfish in some respects, the scientists say they can't find any evidence of cilia, tentacles or gonads, all characteristics of jellies (though the lack of gonads could reflect immature animals, the scientists say).

These animals aren't just mysterious - they're old, too. According to Jørgen Olesen, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, these creatures may "represent an early branch on the tree of life," similar to animals that lived on the ocean floor 600 million years ago.The collected animals, having shrunk a bit after 30 years in an alcohol preservative. (Photo: Just et al.)

"With their small, simple mouth opening [the bit at the base of the stalk] it would seem likely that they feed on micro-organisms, perhaps trapped by mucus from the specialised lobes surrounding the mouth opening," the authors write in the scientific journal PLOS One, in a report published Wednesday.

It's unclear exactly where within the animal kingdom these new deep sea creatures should fall; because the specimens in this study spent nearly 30 years soaked in alcohol, scientists can't perform genetic tests to get a better sense of where the shroom-shaped critters belong.