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Aussie fossil may be oldest vertebrate

By Associated Press
Published October 23, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia - A tadpole-shaped fossil, believed to be the oldest vertebrate ever found, has been uncovered by a farmer in a rugged range of hills in southern Australia, a museum paleontologist said Wednesday.

The fossil, of a 2.56-inch fishlike animal, is believed to be at least 560-million years old - 30-million years older than the previous record.

The latest fossil was discovered in sandstone in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia state. The exact location of the find is being kept secret.

"The fantastic thing about this specimen is that it's at least 30-million years older than anything else that could be even vaguely related to vertebrates," South Australia Museum paleontologist Jim Gehling said. "(The Flinders Ranges fossil is) at least 560-million years old, it could be even about 5-million years older - it's very hard to tell."

Vertebrates are animals with backbones. In 1999, researchers reported fossils of what were then the oldest known vertebrates, jawless fish from about 530-million years ago in China. One researcher suggested those fossils were evolved enough that the first vertebrates must have developed much earlier, perhaps around 555-million years ago or more - close to the age of the new Australian find.

Referring to the new find, Gehling said, "While we say it has a backbone, there's no direct evidence of a backbone. It's the shape of the thing, and it's the fact that it has these inclined sets of muscles and a head end . . . which makes it look like a little fishy tadpole-type thing."

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