Mining Operations Damage Famous Fossil Site

An article in the South China Morning Post highlights the growing concern expressed by the scientific community over damage to a globally important fossil site in Guizhou Province (south-western China).  Phosphorous mining operations are wiping away fossil evidence of some of the earliest organisms classified as animals known to science.  The tiny micro-fossils preserved in strata exposed in Weng’an county, represent the remains of multi-cellular organisms, marine sponges that once thrived in an ancient sea some 600 million years ago.

A False Colour Image Showing One of the Sponge-Like Micro-fossils (Doushantuo Formation)

Sponge-like Ediacaran micro-fossil.

A scanning electron microscope image of the 600 million-year-old sponge-like animal fossil (false colour image).

Picture Credit: NIGPAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Professor Zhu Maoyan and his colleagues at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology have called for urgent measures to be taken to help protect the Weng’an biota.  The world-renowned fossil site, one of the few places that preserves traces of Ediacaran fauna, is threatened as hundreds of mining trucks are transporting rocks from the area every day.  Weng’an county has one of Asia’s largest phosphorus reserves.  The mining business contributes more than sixty per cent of the county government’s annual tax income.  Intensive mining in the area has led to cases of massive subsidence.

The professor, who has led a number of field teams to explore the fossiliferous sediments, that first came to the attention of palaeontologists less than twenty years ago, stated:

“Six hundred million years of life’s evolutionary history is being traded to help produce a bowl of rice.”

The demand for phosphorous to make fertiliser is increasing, unfortunately, the rocks that form the Doushantuo Formation of Guizhou Province are a rich source of this important element.  However, local officials in Weng’an county have promised action after a fossil site covering about three square kilometres was nearly destroyed and buried under huge heaps of debris caused by subsidence.

The micro-fossils preserved in the phosphorite rocks of the Doushantuo Formation, preserve the remains of 600 million-year-old, sponge-like organisms.  Professor Zhu commented that the Weng’an biota was remarkable because of the abundance of fossils and their fine state of preservation, with details shown down to a cellular level.

The professor added:

“There may not be another place like it in the whole world.”

Features of the Fossils are Similar to Extant Sponge Anatomy

Precambrian sponge-like fossils.

Views of the sponge-like fossils from south-western China.

Picture Credit: NIGPAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The picture above shows various views of micro-fossils from the Weng’an county location including highly magnified views of what be a holdfast structure (c, d, e, f, g and h).

Professor Zhu stressed that both local government and the public had failed to realise that the exposures in Weng’an county are unique and very valuable to science.  It was suggested that a “core area” be chosen and then this site given protection.

To read an article featuring research by Virginia Tech College of Science and the Chinese Academy of Sciences which looks at the fossil evidence from the Doushantuo Formation: New Research Suggests Multicellular Life Started Earlier Than Previously Thought

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