The team's finding reshuffles the family tree for salt-loving bacteria, organisms that trace their ancestors back to the dawn of life.
The first representative of the group, Halobacterium salinarum, was found living on a salt-cured buffalo hide in the 1930s. Scientists assumed it was a modern species, but the team's work has shown that H. salinarum is in fact a close genetic relative of bugs that lived between 121 and 419 million years ago.
Vreeland tracked down the origins of the buffalo skin and found that the salt probably came from a mine in Saskatchewan.
Rocks in the mine formed when a sea dried up around 300 million years ago, and Vreeland suspects those first H. salinarum spent the entire time living inside tiny brine-filled defects in salt crystals, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge.
It's a bold claim, but evidence suggests the creatures may be nature's Rip Van Winkles, hunkering inside salt deposits for eons until natural forces -- or in this case, humans -- bring them back to the surface.