Charnia masoni is an extinct, frond-like organism (rangeomorph) from the Ediacaran period (635 - 543 mya). It is recognised as one of the first multi-cellular, complex lifeforms to appear on Earth (Narbonne, Gehling, 2003)

A Charnia fossil was discovered in 1957 by schoolboy Roger Mason (Ford, 1958), in the English Charnwood Forest. It was discovered within sedimentary rocks that predated the Cambrian period and was the first organism to be acknowledged as a pre-Cambrian complex lifeform. This discovery reinvigorated pre-Cambrian research leading to the recognition of the Ediacaran Period and its unique biota.

Charnia was a sessile organism that existed in the deep ocean away from sunlight - which means that it couldn't have been a form of photosynthesising plant. Its full taxonomic relationship to other early lifeforms remains a mystery.  

Charnia has a fractal-like anatomy - built up of simple reoccurring patterns of hydrostatic cellular units - offset along the bilateral line. This offset is known as glide reflection and predates the bilateral symmetry that is common to most modern animals. More recent examinations indicate that by the fourth and possibly even third order of branching, variation in branch units starts to occur - placing a question mark over its fractal classification as a Rangeomorph (Dunn, et al. 2018).

Along with many other Ediacaran organisms it is not known how Charnia acquired food from the environment. As most Ediacaran creatures show no sign of a gut it is thought they probably absorbed nutrients by osmosis- directly through the cell wall.

'Darwin's Dilemma' refers to the apparent absence of any complex life prior to the Cambrian Explosion. How could complex life so suddenly appear in the fossil record without any apparent ancestry? This is still a question that needs to be fully answered, however since the discovery of Charnia many pre-Cambrian fossils have been found around the world and although specific affinities are yet to be agreed upon the Ediacaran biota is clearly an earlier more primitive form of life.

With thanks to Dr Jean-Bernard Caron and Dr Emily MItchell for feedback on anatomical  detail.