Living Mysteries: Meet Earth’s simplest animal

Dickinsonia was one of the first animals on Earth. It lived on the ocean floor 550 million to 560 million years ago. It looked like a giant version of the modern-day Trichoplax, the simplest animal now alive.

Franz Eilhard Schulze had a laboratory full of beautiful sea creatures. In the 1880s, he was one of the world’s top experts on ocean sponges. He found many new species and filled saltwater aquariums at the University of Graz in Austria with these simple sea animals. They were striking — brightly colored with exotic shapes. Some looked like flower vases. Others resembled miniature castles with pointy towers.

But today, Schulze is best remembered for something very different — a drab little animal no larger than a sesame seed.

He discovered it one day by pure accident. It was hiding in one of his fish tanks. Creeping along the inside of the glass, it was dining on the green algae that grew there. Schulze named it Trichoplax adhaerens (TRY-koh-plaks Ad-HEER-ens). That’s Latin for “hairy sticky plate” — which is about what it looks like.

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