Charnia masoni is an extinct, frond-like organism (rangeomorph) from the Ediacaran period (635 - 543 mya). It is recognised as one of the first multi-cellular, complex lifeforms to appear on Earth (Narbonne, Gehling, 2003)

A Charnia fossil was discovered in 1957 by schoolboy Roger Mason (Ford, 1958), in the English Charnwood Forest. It was discovered within sedimentary rocks that predated the Cambrian period and was the first organism to be acknowledged as a Precambrian complex lifeform. This discovery reinvigorated Precambrian research leading to to the establishment of the Ediacaran Period and recognition of its unique biota.

Charnia was a sessile organism that existed in the deep ocean away from sunlight - which means that it couldn't have been a form of photosynthesizing plant or alga. As it also seems to lack any animal characteristics like a gut or mouth its taxonomic affinity remains a mystery. If not flora or fauna then what?

Charnia has a fractal-like anatomy - built up of simple reoccurring patterns of hydrostatic cellular units - offset along the bilateral line. This offset is known as glide reflection and predates the bilateral symmetry that is common to most modern animals. More recent examinations indicate that by the fourth and possibly even third order of branching, variation in branch units starts to occur - placing a question mark over its fractal classification as a Rangeomorph (Dunn, et al. 2018).

Along with many other Ediacaran organisms it is not known how Charnia acquired food from the environment. As most Ediacaran creatures show no sign of a gut it is thought they probably absorbed nutrients by osmosis- directly through the cell wall.

The discovery of Charnia was an important step towards the resolution of "Darwin's Dilemma".

"Darwin's Dilemma" refers to the apparent absence - during Darwin's lifetime and beyond - of any evidence of complex life prior to the "Cambrian Explosion". How could complex life so suddenly appear in the fossil record without any apparent ancestry?

Since the discovery of Charnia many more Precambrian fossils have been found around the world and although affinities are yet to be agreed upon the Ediacaran biota is clearly an earlier more primitive form of life - indicating that the Cambrian Explosion was not an event in isolation.

 

With thanks to Dr Jean-Bernard Caron and Dr Emily MItchell for feedback on anatomical  detail.