The oldest terrestrial fossils discovered to date are said to be mushrooms

635 million-year-old mushrooms discovered in China are believed to be the oldest terrestrial fossils to date, an international team of paleontologists believes.

These microfossils were found in a cavity within sedimentary rocks of the Doushantuo geological formation located in Guizhou province, China, according to a report from Live Science.

Virginia Tech paleontologist Tian Gan and her American and Chinese colleagues explain that this discovery constitutes, if it is confirmed, direct evidence of the colonization of the mainland by fungi, and suggests that the appearance of fungi on the land predates that of plants.

To put events in perspective, this microfossil is about three times older than the oldest dinosaurs.

If our interpretation is correct, our discovery could provide a better understanding of paleoclimatic change and the evolution of early life on Earth , says Tian Gan.

The microfossils of Doushantuo are composed of branched filaments of several hundred microns and hollow spheres.


  • No less than 120,000 species of fungi have been described to date;
  • About 1,300 new species are added to the list each year.

Terrestrial evolution better understood

Microscopic image of the fungus-like microfossils.
(Image: © Andrew Czaja of University of Cincinnati)

This finding is important to our understanding of the evolution of Earth, particularly around the time of the Ediacaran (635 to 541 million years ago) when the planet was recovering from an ice age called Snowball Earth .

At that time, the ocean surface was frozen to a depth of over a kilometer. It was a very harsh environment for all living organisms, except for a few microscopic forms of life that still managed to develop , the researchers said in a statement released by Virginia Tech.

Scientists have long wondered how life was able to resume after snowballing Earth , and how the biosphere could become more diverse and complex than ever.

However, the present study shows that fungal microfossils colonized certain environments 635 million years ago.

This new knowledge suggests that these microscopic and inconspicuous creatures may have played important roles in the repackaging of the environment following the Ice Age.

One of those roles involved their formidable digestive system.

Mushrooms have a fairly unique digestive system that plays an even bigger role in the cycle of vital nutrients.

Thanks to enzymes secreted into the environment, terrestrial fungi can chemically break down rocks and other hard organic material, which can then be recycled and transported to the ocean, explain the authors of the work published in the journal Nature Communications.(New window) (in English).

Fungi and plant roots have a relationship that helps them mobilize minerals, such as phosphorus. Because of their connection to terrestrial plants and important nutritional cycles, terrestrial fungi have a critical influence on biochemical weathering, the global biogeochemical cycle, and ecological interactions.Tian Gan

An old fungal relationship

Other studies tended to show that terrestrial plants and fungi had formed a symbiotic relationship for around 400 million years, but this new discovery of ancient fungi could lead scientists to reconsider when these two species first colonized the planet.

Our fossil is 240 million years older than the previous record. It is, so far, the oldest record of terrestrial fungi.Shuhai Xiao, Virginia Tech

These fossilized mushrooms were accompanied by other fossils. Researchers now want to study their relationships.

The findings were published online Jan. 28 in the journal Nature Communications.

Chris Moore

Chris is an avid outdoorsman and has been contubuting to The Camping Canuck for 2 years.

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