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EARLY EARTH
Life-giving elements found in prehistoric water: study
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) May 15, 2013


Ancient marine reptile said 'creature out of its time'
Southampton, England (UPI) May 15, 2013 - European scientists say a newly identified kind of ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like marine reptile from the age of dinosaurs, gives new insights into the creatures.

Researchers from the University of Southampton in Britain and the University of Liege in Belgium have named the fossil -- found in Iraq in the 1950s but now the subject of new studies -- Malawania anachronus, which means "out of time swimmer."

Despite coming from the Cretaceous period -- from 145 million to 66 million years ago -- Malawania represents the last-known member of a kind of ichthyosaur long believed to have gone extinct during the Early Jurassic, more than 60 million years earlier.

Hundreds of Ichthyosaur fossils from the time of the dinosaurs have been discovered.

"They ranged in size from less than one to over 20 meters [3 feet to 60 feet] in length. All gave birth to live young at sea, and some were fast-swimming, deep-diving animals with enormous eyeballs and a so-called warm-blooded physiology," lead study author Valentin Fischer of the University of Liege said.

Malawania anachronus appears characterized by an evolutionary stasis, the researchers said; they seem not to have changed much between the Early Jurassic and the Cretaceous, a very rare feat in the evolution of marine reptiles.

"Malawania's discovery is similar to that of the coelacanth in the 1930s: It represents an animal that seems 'out of time' for its age," Fischer said. "This 'living fossil' of its time demonstrates the existence of a lineage that we had never even imagined."

Scientists said Wednesday they had found life-giving chemicals in water at least 1.5 billion years old, which they are now combing for signs of microscopic organisms surviving from a prehistoric age.

The water, isolated in pockets deep underground for billions of years, is now pouring out of boreholes from a mine 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles) beneath Ontario, Canada, they wrote in the journal Nature.

"This water could be some of the oldest on the planet and may even contain life," the team said in a statement.

Not only that -- the similarity between the rocks that trapped the fluid and those found on Mars raised hopes that similar life-sustaining water could be buried deep inside the Red Planet, they said.

"The findings... may force us to rethink which parts of our planet are fit for life," they added.

The British and Canadian researchers analysed the water and found it was rich in dissolved gases like hydrogen and methane that are able to sustain microscopic life not exposed to the sun for billions of years, as is the case on the ocean floor.

The rocks around the water were dated about 2.7 billion years old, "but no one thought the water could be the same age, until now," the team said.

Analysing the water's composition in the lab, the team estimated that it was at least 1.5 billion years old, possibly more.

"Our finding is of huge interest to researchers who want to understand how microbes evolve in isolation, and is central to the whole question of the origin of life, the sustainability of life, and life in extreme environments and on other planets," said Manchester University researcher and study co-author Chris Ballentine.

Before this discovery, the only other water from this age had been found trapped in tiny bubbles in rock, incapable of supporting life.

The Canadian water has characteristics similar to much younger water flowing from a mine 2.8 kilometres below ground in South Africa, which is known to support microbes.

"Our Canadian colleagues are trying to find out if the (Ontario) water contains life," said lead author Greg Holland of Lancaster University.

"What we can be sure of is that we have identified a way in which planets can create and preserve an environment friendly to microbial life for billions of years.

"This is regardless of how inhospitable the surface might be, opening up the possibility of similar environments in the subsurface of Mars."

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