Researchers first discovered the pancake-shaped creatures — a group known as Dickinsonia — in the late 1940s. The species were among the most common residents of the world's oceans 558 million years ago, during the Ediacaran period. Whereas most living things during that time ranged in size from microscopic to a few millimeters long, some Dickinsonia grew up to 1.4 meters in length.
The creatures' large size has puzzled scientists because Dickinsonia lived tens of millions of years before the Cambrian explosion, the period 541 million years ago when living things became bigger and most major animal groups emerged. Scientists have since debated whether Dickinsonia were primitive animals, giant single-celled organisms called protists, bacterial colonies or something else entirely.