Abstract

Multicellularity arose multiple times in the evolutionary history of eukaryotes, and simple multicellularity may have a deep history tracing back to the Paleoproterozoic. However, complex multicellular organisms with cellular and tissue differentiation did not appear in the fossil record until the Mesoproterozoic, and it is not until the Ediacaran Period (635–541 Ma) when diverse assemblages of complex multicellular eukaryotes evolved. In the intervening Tonian Period (ca. 1000–720 Ma), the fossil record of multicellular organisms is poorly documented. To address this knowledge gap, we investigated Chuaria and associated carbonaceous compression fossils from the Tonian Liulaobei Formation in North China. These fossils have been variously interpreted as unicellular or multicellular organisms. Our analysis using backscattered-electron scanning electron microscopy (BSE-SEM) revealed direct evidence for simple multicellularity in some of these fossils and suggests that Chuaria may have had a multicellular vegetative stage in its life cycle. This study demonstrates that BSE-SEM has the potential to unveil the hidden diversity of multicellular organisms in the Tonian Period, thus enriching our knowledge about the multiple origins of multicellularity in this critical geological period before Cryogenian glaciations.

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