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Australia Find May Be Oldest Vertebrate

October 25, 2003|From Associated Press

A tadpole-shaped fossil, believed to be the oldest vertebrate ever found, has been uncovered by a farmer in a rugged range of hills in southern Australia.

The fossil, of a 26-inch fishlike animal, is believed to be at least 560 million years old.

"The fantastic thing about this specimen is that it's at least 30 million years older than anything else that could be even vaguely related to vertebrates," South Australia Museum paleontologist Jim Gehling told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Wednesday.

The fossil was discovered in sandstone in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia state, an area known for its abundance of fossils. The exact location of the find is being kept secret.

Vertebrates are animals with backbones. In 1999, researchers reported fossils of what were then the oldest known vertebrates, jawless fish from about 530 million years ago in China. One researcher suggested those fossils were evolved enough that the first vertebrates must have developed much earlier, perhaps around 555 million years ago or more -- close to the age of the new Australian find.

Referring to the new discovery, Gehling said, "While we say it has a backbone, there's no direct evidence of a backbone. It's the shape of the thing, and it's the fact that it has these inclined sets of muscles and a head end ... which makes it look like a little fishy tadpole-type thing, which is evidence that it's something different to all the other fossils around it."

South Australian Museum spokeswoman Belinda Bocson said the farmer, Ross Fargher, originally found fossils on his remote property 10 years ago and Gehling began studying the find. Only recently did colleagues confirm the fossil's likely age, Bocson said.

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