"First Sex" Found in Australian Fossils?

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Scientists stress that most of the Ediacaran biota are not very well understood.

"These things are wacky looking," Droser said. "They don't look like anything we see today and we don't have a clue what most of them are."

Bruce Runnegar, a paleontologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, isn't quite convinced that F. dorothea would have been capable of sex.

Researchers still can't be certain whether the ancient organisms were truly animals, how they reproduced, or when sex first arose within the line leading to modern animals, he noted.

"It's a fine paper and it sorts out a puzzling [set of fossils] that has been known since the 1960s," Runnegar said.

"[But] I would say that the case for this being evidence for the 'first-ever example of animal sex' is weak."

Study author Droser notes that individual F. dorothea fossils also used an asexual reproduction technique called budding, which is employed by modern sponges and yeast.

The evidence that the ancient critters might have reproduced in multiple ways suggests to her that their early ecosystem was, in some ways, surprisingly advanced.

"It means that some complex survival strategies still in use by today's invertebrates were used in truly ancient times," Droser said.

"[Different reproductive techniques] are not just evolutionary adaptations to threats such as predators and competition for food resources," she added.

"It's sort of amazing that these earliest animals on the planet were rather complex, and that Earth's first ecosystems had rather complex ecologies."

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