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 http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/early/2014/09/25/G35886.1.abstract

Rising mountains, cooling oceans prompted spread of invasive species 450 million years ago

This slab of rock contains fossils of invasive species that populated the continent of Laurentia 450 million years ago after a major ecological shift occurred. Ohio University geologists found that rising mountains and cooling oceans prompted the spread of these invasive species. -  Alycia Stigall
This slab of rock contains fossils of invasive species that populated the continent of Laurentia 450 million years ago after a major ecological shift occurred. Ohio University geologists found that rising mountains and cooling oceans prompted the spread of these invasive species. – Alycia Stigall

New Ohio University research suggests that the rise of an early phase of the Appalachian Mountains and cooling oceans allowed invasive species to upset the North American ecosystem 450 million years ago.

The study, published recently in the journal PLOS ONE, took a closer look at a dramatic ecological shift captured in the fossil record during the Ordovician period. Ohio University scientists argue that major geological developments triggered evolutionary changes in the ancient seas, which were dominated by organisms such as brachiopods, corals, trilobites and crinoids.

During this period, North America was part of an ancient continent called Laurentia that sat near the equator and had a tropical climate. Shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates gave rise to the Taconic Mountains, which were forerunners of the Appalachian Mountains. The geological shift left a depression behind the mountain range, flooding the area with cool water from the surrounding deep ocean.

Scientists knew that there was a massive influx of invasive species into this ocean basin during this time period, but didn’t know where the invaders came from or how they got a foothold in the ecosystem, said Alycia Stigall, an Ohio University associate professor of geological sciences who co-authored the paper with former Ohio University graduate student David Wright, now a doctoral student at Ohio State University.

“The rocks of this time record a major oceanographic shift, pulse of mountain building and a change in evolutionary dynamics coincident with each other,” Stigall said. “We are interested in examining the interactions between these factors.”

Using the fossils of 53 species of brachiopods that dominated the Laurentian ecosystem, Stigall and Wright created several phylogenies, or trees of reconstructed evolutionary relationships, to examine how individual speciation events occurred.

The invaders that proliferated during this time period were species within the groups of animals that inhabited Laurentia, Stigall explained. Within the brachiopods, corals and cephalopods, for example, some species are invasive and some are not.

As the geological changes slowly played out over the course of a million years, two patterns of survival emerged, the scientists report.

During the early stage of mountain building and ocean cooling, the native organisms became geographically divided, slowly evolving into different species suited for these niche habitats. This process, called vicariance, is the typical method by which new species originate on Earth, Stigall said.

As the geological changes progressed, however, species from other regions of the continent began to directly invade habitats, a process called dispersal. Although biodiversity may initially increase, this process decreases biodiversity in the long term, Stigall explained, because it allows a few aggressive species to populate many sites quickly, dominating those ecosystems.

This is the second time that Stigall and her team have found this pattern of speciation in the geological record. A study published in 2010 on the invasive species that prompted a mass extinction during the Devonian period about 375 million years ago also discovered a shift from vicariance to dispersal that contributed to a decline in biodiversity, Stigall noted.

It’s a pattern that’s happening during our modern biodiversity crisis as well, she said.

“Only one out of 10 invaders truly become invasive species. Understanding the process can help determine where to put conservation resources,” she said.

A billion-year-old piece of North America traced back to Antarctica

The Franklin Mountains in West Texas were once part of Coats Land in Antarctica, according to Staci Loewy, a geochemist at California State University, Bakersfield, et al. This photo shows Coats Land with its only rock outcrops, Littlewood (L) and Bertrab (B) nunataks. -  Ian Dalziel
The Franklin Mountains in West Texas were once part of Coats Land in Antarctica, according to Staci Loewy, a geochemist at California State University, Bakersfield, et al. This photo shows Coats Land with its only rock outcrops, Littlewood (L) and Bertrab (B) nunataks. – Ian Dalziel

An international team of researchers has found the strongest evidence yet that parts of North America and Antarctica were connected 1.1 billion years ago, long before the supercontinent Pangaea formed.

“I can go to the Franklin Mountains in West Texas and stand next to what was once part of Coats Land in Antarctica,” said Staci Loewy, a geochemist at California State University, Bakersfield, who led the study. “That’s so amazing.”

Loewy and her colleagues discovered that rocks collected from both locations have the exact same composition of lead isotopes. Earlier analyses showed the rocks to be the exact same age and have the same chemical and geologic properties. The work, published online 5 August (ahead of print) in the September issue of the journal Geology, strengthens support for the so-called SWEAT hypothesis, which posits that ancestral North America and East Antarctica were joined in an earlier supercontinent called Rodinia.

The approximately 1.1 billion year old North American Mid-continent Rift System extends across the continent from the Great Lakes to Texas. Volcanic rocks associated with the rift, which appears to represent an aborted tectonic attempt to split the ancestral North American continent of Laurentia, are well exposed in the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from which they take their name, the Keweenawan large igneous province. The rift extends in the subsurface beneath Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to the Franklin Mountains near El Paso, Texas where related rocks are exposed. In this latest report, Loewy, Ian Dalziel, research professor at The University of Texas at Austin, Richard Hanson of Texas Christian University and colleagues from several overseas institutions, find that rocks barely peeking through the ice in Coats Land, a remote part of the Antarctic continent south of the Atlantic Ocean basin, reflect a former continuation of the North American rift system. Loewy began her collaboration with Dalziel several years ago as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Loewy et al. use new lead (Pb) isotopic data from the 1.1-billion-year-old rocks from Coats Land, to constrain the positions of Laurentia (ancestral North America) and Kalahari (ancestral southern Africa) in the 1-billion-year-old supercontinent, Rodinia. The Coats Land rocks are identical in age to both the Keweenawan large igneous province of the North American mid-continent rift and the contemporaneous Umkondo large igneous province of southern Africa. Comparison of the isotopic compositions, however, unequivocally links the Coats Land rocks with the Keweenawan province. Together with paleomagnetic data this suggests that the Coats Land block was a piece of Laurentia near west Texas 1.1 billion years ago. Furthermore, the Coats Land block collided with the Kalahari Precambrian craton of Africa during a 1-billion-year-old collision. Based on this reconstruction, Laurentia collided with Kalahari along Antarctica’s Maud mountain belt, which would represent a continuation of the 1-billion-year-old Grenville mountain belt of eastern and southern North America.

Thus the tiny Coats Land block of Antarctica is a ‘tectonic tracer’ providing critical clues to the geographic relationships between three of the major continents of the planet in the time interval 1.1 – 1.0 billion years ago, just prior to the opening of the Pacific Ocean basin, the hypothesized ‘Snowball Earth’ glaciations, and the rise of multi-cellular life.

A Single Boulder May Prove that Antarctica and North America Were Once Connected





The Transantarctic Mountains where the boulder was found. - Credit: John Goodge / University of Minnesota-Duluth
The Transantarctic Mountains where the boulder was found. – Credit: John Goodge / University of Minnesota-Duluth

A lone granite boulder found against all odds high atop a glacier in Antarctica may provide additional key evidence to support a theory that parts of the southernmost continent once were connected to North America hundreds of millions of years ago.



Writing in the July 11 edition of the journal Science, an international team of U.S. and Australian investigators describe their findings, which were made in the Transantarctic Mountains, and their significance to the problem of piecing together what an ancient supercontinent, called Rodinia, looked like. The U.S. investigators were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).



Previous lines of scientific evidence led researchers to theorise that about 600-800 million years ago a portion of Rodinia broke away from what is now the southwestern United States and eventually drifted southward to become eastern Antarctica and Australia.



The team’s find, they argue, provides physical evidence that confirms the so-called southwestern United States and East Antarctica (SWEAT) hypothesis.



“What this paper does is say that we have three main new lines of evidence that basically confirm the SWEAT idea,” said John Goodge, an NSF-funded researcher with the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.



Added Scott Borg, director of the division of Antarctic sciences in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, “this is first-rate work and a fascinating example of scientists at work putting together the pieces of a much larger puzzle. Not only do the authors pull together a diverse array of data to address a long-standing question about the evolution of the Earth’s crust during a critical time for biological evolution, but the research shows how the ideas surrounding the SWEAT hypothesis have developed over time.”



As a field researcher during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Borg authored papers on the SWEAT hypothesis.



The boulder find came by serendipity while the researchers were picking though rubble carried through the Transantarctic Mountains by ice streams-rivers of ice-that flow at literally a glacial pace from East Antarctica.



Goodge and his team were searching for rocks that might provide keys to the composition of the underlying continent crust of Antarctica, which in most places is buried under almost two miles of ice.



“We were picking up boulders in the moraines that looked interesting,” Goodge said. “It was basically just a hodge-podge of material.”



One rock in particular, small enough to heft in one hand, found atop the Nimrod Glacier, was later determined to be a very specific form of granite with, as Goodge describes it, “a particular type of coarse-grained texture.”



Subsequent chemical and isotopic tests conducted in laboratories in the United States revealed that the boulder had a chemistry “very similar to a unique belt of igneous rocks in North America” that stretches from what is now California eastward through New Mexico to Kansas, Illinois and eventually through New Brunswick and Newfoundland in Canada.


That belt of rocks is known to have been a part of what is called Laurentia, which was a component of the supercontinent of Rodinia.



“There is a long, linear belt of these igneous rocks that stretches across Laurentia. But ‘bang’ it stops, right there at the (western) margin where we knew that something rifted away” from what is now the West Coast of the United States,” Goodge said.



“It just ends right where that ancient rift margin is,” Goodge said. “And these rocks are basically not found in any other part of the world.”



That it should turn up on a glacier high up in the mountains of Antarctica is strong evidence in support of the SWEAT model that parts of North America continue into part of the frozen continent at the bottom of the Earth.



“There’s no other explanation for how it got where we found it,” Goodge said. “It was bull-dozed over from that interior region of Antarctica.”



The find itself is compelling to geologists, Goodge noted, because little other physical evidences exists to allow them directly to put together the jigsaw puzzle of the long-disappeared Rodinia.



But because the supercontinent existed at a key time in the development of multi-cellular life on Earth, it also helps provide a geological context in which this massive biotic change took place.



“During the Cambrian explosion about 520 million years ago we started seeing this huge expansion in the diversity of life forms,” Goodge said. “This was also a time when the Earth was undergoing tremendous geologic changes.”



He added that “something helped trigger that big radiation in life.”



The shifting configuration of the continents, accompanied by collisions between landmasses, erosion and the influx of chemicals into the seas may well have provided the nutrients to that growing diversity of lifeforms.



“There are ideas developing about these connections between the geo-tectonic world on the one hand and biology on the other.



The job of geoscientists in this context, he said “is to reconstruct what the world was like at the time.”