It’s a giant freakin’ week for science, and I’m not even talking about Godzilla. A team of scientists and researchers from the University of New South Wales recently found sperm that dates back 17 million years and now has the distinction of being the oldest sperm ever found.
The sperm belongs to an ostracod, or a freshwater shrimp. Back in 1988, researchers found the sperm while gathering bat fossils in the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in a Queensland, Australia cave. The area has yielded momentous discoveries before, but this one surprised researchers, who weren’t looking for anything of the sort. What they were looking for is vertebrate fossils preserved in guano, or bat poop, which is apparently the best and grossest way to preserve something for millions of years, and which helped enrich the cave water the ostracods lived in. Luckily, researchers also have a special acidic solution to free the fossils from their poop casings.
It wasn’t until 2009 that John Neil, a retired paleontologist, took a closer look at some of the sediment from that expedition. In it, he found over 800 of the shrimp, which look more like bed bugs than the shrimp we eat. That’s when Neil realized that the sediment contained sperm nuclei, and that they were huge — every bit as big as the shrimp that contained it. The sperm were coiled up tight inside the shrimps’ sexual organs, but when uncoiled, were shocking in relative size. When the shrimp is small, that’s not such a big deal, but if our sperm were the size of humans, it’d be another story.
Suffice to say, this fossil site will probably become even more popular in the near future, as researchers try to figure out what other surprises lay in wait in the guano. The findings are described in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Hard copies of magazine will be preserved in bat poop for millions of years, waiting to be uncovered by robotic researchers hoping to gain clues about the strange race that preceded them.