It sounds like something out of a clumsy sci-fi movie, but “rangeomorphs” — fractal-shaped organisms which evolved before plants and animals — were very real. The above digital renderings of the obscure sea dwellers were created by scientists Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill and Simon Conway Morris.

Rangeomorphs reigned in the Ediacaran era, 575 million years ago, when life was microscopic. They were the first lifeforms to evolve in size — up to two meters long. Though they look like coral, each was a single, individual organism. Rangeomorphs had no organs or mouths, and weren’t able to move on their own. Instead, their evolutionary strategy was to cover as much surface area as possible to give themselves more opportunities to absorb food.

Each rangeomorph body plan was a fractal, so it looked the same at different scales. That maximised their outer surface area, boosting food absorption. One of the sponge-like rangeomorphs had a surface area of 58 square metres, almost the same as the interior of a human lung.

Rangeomorphs died out around the time of the Cambrian explosion. They just couldn’t compete with organisms that moved and preyed on them. RIP rangemorphs. (Image: University Of Cambridge)