Muscente shares expertise in article on fossil study

Assistant Professor of Geology Drew Muscente was recently quoted in an article in TheScientist, “890-Million-Year-Old Fossils Are Sponges, Oldest Animals: Study.”

 Drew Muscente
Drew Muscente

It’s about a new study that suggests sponges could have existed hundreds of millions of years before scientists previously thought. 

Muscente shared his expertise in the article about the findings: 

“There’s room to be skeptical,” says Drew Muscente, a paleontologist at Cornell College in Iowa who did not participate in the study. His work has focused mostly on the skeletons that some sponges produce, called spicules, usually made of silica or calcium carbonate. “These are unambiguous structures that sponges produce, so you would imagine some sponge at some point in Earth’s history—perhaps the earliest sponges—had these structures that you identify,” he adds. It’s trickier to identify bath sponges because they do not produce spicules.

“Could these structures be sponges? Yes. Are we sure they’re sponges? I’m not,” Muscente adds, acknowledging that he may be “overly conservative,” but that the evidence is circumstantial at this point.

On the other hand, if researchers “embrace these structures as the oldest sponge fossils, it will help really shed light on, not just the origin of sponges, but the timing of the origin of animal life as a whole, because these would be the oldest animal fossils, period,” Muscente says.

The geology professor and his Cornell College students study the fossil record to better understand the evolution and preservation of ancient marine animal life. This research involves a mix of field and laboratory work on fossil specimens as well as an array of computational methods applied to large databases.

According to TheScientist’s website, the magazine is a publication for life science professionals with articles published about cell and molecular biology, genetics, and other life-science fields.