The key to the beginnings of life on Earth – found by a schoolboy in Charnwood Forest

Posted by er134 at Nov 18, 2013 01:30 PM |
University of Leicester identified teenager’s find as first evidence ever confirmed of Precambrian life
The key to the beginnings of life on Earth – found by a schoolboy in Charnwood Forest

Roger Mason in 1957 with the climbing rope used on the day of the discovery. (Leicester Mercury)

When, as a 15-year-old, Roger Mason first found fossils embedded in the rocky crags of a Charnwood quarry, his discovery was not merely unprecedented, but seemed impossible. But when he showed Dr Trevor Ford of the University of Leicester his find, there was no doubt—Mason had found the first confirmed evidence of Precambrian life.

Roger Mason’s find, Charnia masoni, was identified at the University of Leicester in 1957, and after Dr Trevor Ford published a paper detailing the find, it became clear just how unprecedented the discovery was: at a stroke, it had proven that life existed on earth far earlier than previously thought.

Richard Allen (left) and Roger Mason (right) with the holotype of Charnia masoni in Leicester New Walk Museum) in 2011. (Richard Allen).
When Roger Mason cycled, with his friends Richard Blachford and Richard Allen, to Charnwood to climb in a disused quarry near Woodhouse Eves, Blachford stumbled across the impossible: a frond-like fossil impressed on Pre-Cambrian rock, dating from an era when complex life was not thought to have existed at all. At least one person, schoolchild Tina Negus, had spotted the fossil before—only to have her discovery rubbished by her teachers.

Mason took his find to his father’s friend Dr Trevor Ford, lecturer at University College Leicester, the forerunner of the University of Leicester. “Trevor was sceptical until he saw the fossil,” Mason remembers.  “Then he exclaimed ‘My God, it is!’ I couldn’t believe my ears!” The fossils were Precambrian—dating from before life was first thought to have appeared on Earth. These are now dated at about 560 million years ago in a period now known as the Ediacaran, from an area in South Australia where many similar fossils have been found.

After Mason showed him the fossils, Dr Ford published a scientific paper on them, confirming just how important the find was. “Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species that the world swarmed with living creatures before the Cambrian age,” Mason says.  “He devoted a whole chapter to the problem of why complex life-forms suddenly appeared as fossils about 540 million years ago, and speculated that Precambrian fossils might be discovered in future.”  The discovery of Charnia masoni, named for its discoverer, fulfilled his prediction: far from being lifeless, the seas of the late Pre-Cambrian Earth had teemed with life.

Soon, similar fossils were turning up across the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Later, more fossils were found on crags in Bradgate Park—impressions of soft-bodied organisms of uncertain biological affinity. The type specimens are on display in Leicester Museum in New Walk. Dr Ford later found other Precambrian fossils in rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This and other interests led to an OBE “for services to geology and cave science” in 1997—he is still writing geological articles at the age of 88, having published 470 articles as of 2013.

After the find, Dr Ford helped launch Mason’s career as a geologist, along with other members of staff in the Department of Geology. Mason went on to study at the University of Cambridge, later completing a Ph.D and textbooks on Metamorphism: and naturally taking any opportunity to mention Ediacaran fossils in his work.

Mason seeks to keep these fossils accessible to the public, sharing his discovery with future generations. “They are a huge educational resource,” Mason says. “The fossils on Memorial Crags are the most accessible Ediacarans in Charnwood. There are over 100 specimens—or were before they were damaged—including a number of genera and species identified there for the first time. These ‘holotypes’ are of unique value for the science of palaeontology.”

Mason wrote to the Geoscientist about his vision for the fossils, and published an article on the website of the Geological Society in October 2013.