Massive geographic change may have triggered explosion of animal life

A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. -  Ian Dalziel
A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. – Ian Dalziel

A new analysis of geologic history may help solve the riddle of the “Cambrian explosion,” the rapid diversification of animal life in the fossil record 530 million years ago that has puzzled scientists since the time of Charles Darwin.

A paper by Ian Dalziel of The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, published in the November issue of Geology, a journal of the Geological Society of America, suggests a major tectonic event may have triggered the rise in sea level and other environmental changes that accompanied the apparent burst of life.

The Cambrian explosion is one of the most significant events in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. The surge of evolution led to the sudden appearance of almost all modern animal groups. Fossils from the Cambrian explosion document the rapid evolution of life on Earth, but its cause has been a mystery.

The sudden burst of new life is also called “Darwin’s dilemma” because it appears to contradict Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of gradual evolution by natural selection.

“At the boundary between the Precambrian and Cambrian periods, something big happened tectonically that triggered the spreading of shallow ocean water across the continents, which is clearly tied in time and space to the sudden explosion of multicellular, hard-shelled life on the planet,” said Dalziel, a research professor at the Institute for Geophysics and a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Beyond the sea level rise itself, the ancient geologic and geographic changes probably led to a buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere and a change in ocean chemistry, allowing more complex life-forms to evolve, he said.

The paper is the first to integrate geological evidence from five present-day continents — North America, South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica — in addressing paleogeography at that critical time.

Dalziel proposes that present-day North America was still attached to the southern continents until sometime into the Cambrian period. Current reconstructions of the globe’s geography during the early Cambrian show the ancient continent of Laurentia — the ancestral core of North America — as already having separated from the supercontinent Gondwanaland.

In contrast, Dalziel suggests the development of a deep oceanic gateway between the Pacific and Iapetus (ancestral Atlantic) oceans isolated Laurentia in the early Cambrian, a geographic makeover that immediately preceded the global sea level rise and apparent explosion of life.

“The reason people didn’t make this connection before was because they hadn’t looked at all the rock records on the different present-day continents,” he said.

The rock record in Antarctica, for example, comes from the very remote Ellsworth Mountains.

“People have wondered for a long time what rifted off there, and I think it was probably North America, opening up this deep seaway,” Dalziel said. “It appears ancient North America was initially attached to Antarctica and part of South America, not to Europe and Africa, as has been widely believed.”

Although the new analysis adds to evidence suggesting a massive tectonic shift caused the seas to rise more than half a billion years ago, Dalziel said more research is needed to determine whether this new chain of paleogeographic events can truly explain the sudden rise of multicellular life in the fossil record.

“I’m not claiming this is the ultimate explanation of the Cambrian explosion,” Dalziel said. “But it may help to explain what was happening at that time.”


To read the paper go to

Evidence for a geologic trigger of the Cambrian explosion

The oceans teemed with life 600 million years ago, but the simple, soft-bodied creatures would have been hardly recognizable as the ancestors of nearly all animals on Earth today.

Then something happened. Over several tens of millions of years – a relative blink of an eye in geologic terms – a burst of evolution led to a flurry of diversification and increasing complexity, including the expansion of multicellular organisms and the appearance of the first shells and skeletons.

The results of this Cambrian explosion are well documented in the fossil record, but its cause – why and when it happened, and perhaps why nothing similar has happened since – has been a mystery.

New research shows that the answer may lie in a second geological curiosity – a dramatic boundary, known as the Great Unconformity, between ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks and younger sediments.

“The Great Unconformity is a very prominent geomorphic surface and there’s nothing else like it in the entire rock record,” says Shanan Peters, a geoscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the new work. Occurring worldwide, the Great Unconformity juxtaposes old rocks, formed billions of years ago deep within the Earth’s crust, with relatively young Cambrian sedimentary rock formed from deposits left by shallow ancient seas that covered the continents just a half billion years ago.

Named in 1869 by explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell during the first documented trip through the Grand Canyon, the Great Unconformity has posed a longstanding puzzle and has been viewed – by Charles Darwin, among others – as a huge gap in the rock record and in our understanding of the Earth’s history.

But Peters says the gap itself – the missing time in the geologic record – may hold the key to understanding what happened.

In the April 19 issue of the journal Nature, he and colleague Robert Gaines of Pomona College report that the same geological forces that formed the Great Unconformity may have also provided the impetus for the burst of biodiversity during the early Cambrian.

“The magnitude of the unconformity is without rival in the rock record,” Gaines says. “When we pieced that together, we realized that its formation must have had profound implications for ocean chemistry at the time when complex life was just proliferating.”

“We’re proposing a triggering mechanism for the Cambrian explosion,” says Peters. “Our hypothesis is that biomineralization evolved as a biogeochemical response to an increased influx of continental weathering products during the last stages in the formation of the Great Unconformity.”

Peters and Gaines looked at data from more than 20,000 rock samples from across North America and found multiple clues, such as unusual mineral deposits with distinct geochemistry, that point to a link between the physical, chemical, and biological effects.

During the early Cambrian, shallow seas repeatedly advanced and retreated across the North American continent, gradually eroding away surface rock to uncover fresh basement rock from within the crust. Exposed to the surface environment for the first time, those crustal rocks reacted with air and water in a chemical weathering process that released ions such as calcium, iron, potassium, and silica into the oceans, changing the seawater chemistry.

The basement rocks were later covered with sedimentary deposits from those Cambrian seas, creating the boundary now recognized as the Great Unconformity.

Evidence of changes in the seawater chemistry is captured in the rock record by high rates of carbonate mineral formation early in the Cambrian, as well as the occurrence of extensive beds of glauconite, a potassium-, silica-, and iron-rich mineral that is much rarer today.

The influx of ions to the oceans also likely posed a challenge to the organisms living there. “Your body has to keep a balance of these ions in order to function properly,” Peters explains. “If you have too much of one you have to get rid of it, and one way to get rid of it is to make a mineral.”

The fossil record shows that the three major biominerals – calcium phosphate, now found in bones and teeth; calcium carbonate, in invertebrate shells; and silicon dioxide, in radiolarians – appeared more or less simultaneously around this time and in a diverse array of distantly related organisms.

The time lag between the first appearance of animals and their subsequent acquisition of biominerals in the Cambrian is notable, Peters says. “It’s likely biomineralization didn’t evolve for something, it evolved in response to something – in this case, changing seawater chemistry during the formation of the Great Unconformity. Then once that happened, evolution took it in another direction.” Today those biominerals play essential roles as varied as protection (shells and spines), stability (bones), and predation (teeth and claws).

Together, the results suggest that the formation of the Great Unconformity may have triggered the Cambrian explosion.

“This feature explains a lot of lingering questions in different arenas, including the odd occurrences of many types of sedimentary rocks and a very remarkable style of fossil preservation. And we can’t help but think this was very influential for early developing life at the time,” Gaines says.

Far from being a lack of information, as Darwin thought, the gaps in the rock record may actually record the mechanism as to why the Cambrian explosion occurred in the first place, Peters says.

“The French composer Claude Debussy said, ‘Music is the space between the notes.’ I think that is the case here,” he says. “The gaps can have more information, in some ways, about the processes driving Earth system change, than the rocks do. It’s both together that give the whole picture.”

Deep heat solution to 500-million year mystery

Scientists from the universities of Leicester and Cambridge and from the British Geological Survey have published new research in the journal Geology this month (November) shedding new light on a 500-million year old mystery.

The 500 million year-old fossils of the Burgess Shale in Canada, discovered over a century ago, still provide one of the most remarkable insights into the dawn of animal life. The beautiful silvery fossils show the true nature of the life of that time, just after the “Cambrian explosion” of animal life.

Yet, their existence is a paradox: the fossils have been buried deep in the Earth’s crust and heated to over 300oC (~600 oF), before being thrust up by tectonic forces to form a mountainous ridge in the Rockies. Usually such extreme conditions are thought to destroy fossils. But, in the Burgess Shale the most exquisite detail of soft tissues has been preserved.

Now, by careful restudy of its fossils (published in the November issue of the journal Geology) Alex Page and his colleagues Phil Wilby, Sarah Gabbott and Jan Zalasiewicz, of the universities of Cambridge and Leicester and the British Geological Survey, have solved this riddle.

They have shown that as the delicate organic tissues of these fossils were heated deep within the Earth, they became the site for mineral formation. The new minerals, forged at these tremendous depths, picked out intricate details such as gills, guts and even eyes.

Alex Page said: “This provides a whole new theory for how fossils form. The deep heating may not have cremated them, but it certainly left them stone baked”

Once an ancient sea bed, the Burgess shale were formed shortly after life suddenly became more complex and diverse – the so-called Cambrian explosion – and are of immense scientific interest.

Normally, only hard parts of ancient animals became fossilised; the bones, teeth or shells. Soft parts were rarely preserved: many plants and invertebrate animals evolved, lived for millions of years and became extinct, but left no trace in the fossil record. The Burgess Shales preserved soft tissue in exquisite detail, and the question of how this came to happen has troubled scientists since the discovery of the fossils in 1909.