The launch of modern life on Earth

To set against five brief episodes of mass extinction – some would count the present as being the beginning of a sixth – is one short period when animals with hard parts appeared for the first time roughly simultaneously across the Earth. Not only was the Cambrian Explosion sudden and pervasive but almost all phyla, the basic morphological divisions of multicellular life, adopted inner or outer skeletons that could survive as fossils. Such an all-pervading evolutionary step has never been repeated, although there have been many bursts in living diversity. Apart from the origin of life and the emergence of its sexual model, the eukaryotes, nothing could be more important in palaeobiology than the events across the Cambrian-Precambrian boundary.

English: Opabinia regalis, from the Cambrian B...

One of the evolutionary experiments during the Cambrian, Opabinia regalis, from the Burgess Shale. (credit: Wikipedia)

This eminent event has been marked by most of the latest issue of the journal Gondwana Research (volume 25, Issue 3 for April 2014)in a 20-paper series called Beyond the Cambrian Explosion: from galaxy to genome (summarized  by Isozaki, Y., Degan, S.., aruyama,, S.. & Santosh, M. 2014. Beyond the Cambrian Explosion: from galaxy to genome.  Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 881-883). Of course, these phenomenal events have been at issue since the 19th century when the division of geological time began to be based on the appearance and vanishing of well preserved and easily distinguished fossils in the stratigraphic column. On this basis roughly the last ninth of the Earth’s history was split on palaeontological grounds into the 3 Eras, 11 Periods, and a great many of the briefer Epochs and Ages that constitute the Phanerozoic. Time that preceded the Cambrian explosion was for a long while somewhat murky mainly because of a lack of means of subdivision and the greater structural and metamorphic damage that had been done to the rocks that had accumulated over 4 billion years since the planet accreted. Detail emerged slowly by increasingly concerted study of the Precambrian, helped since the 1930s by the ability to assign numerical ages to rocks. Signs of life in sediments that had originally been termed the Azoic (Greek for ‘without life’) gradually turned up as far back as 3.5 Ga, but much attention focused on the 400 Ma immediately preceding the start of the Cambrian period once abundant trace fossils had been found in the Ediacaran Hills of South Australia that had been preceded by repeated worldwide glacial epochs. The Ediacaran and Cryogenian Periods (635-541 and 850-635 Ma respectively) of the Neoproterozoic figure prominently in 9 of the papers to investigate or review the ‘back story’ from which the crucial event in the history of life emerged. Six have a mainly Cambrian focus on newly discovered fossils, especially from a sedimentary sequence in southern China that preserves delicate fossils in great detail: the Chengjian Lagerstätte. Others cover geochemical evidence for changes in marine conditions from the Cryogenian to Cambrian and reviews of theories for what triggered the great faunal change.

Since the hard parts that allow fossils to linger are based on calcium-rich compounds, mainly carbonates and phosphates that bind the organic materials in bones and shells, it is important to check for some change in the Ca content of ocean water over the time covered by the discourse. In fact there are signs from Ca-isotopes in carbonates that this did change. A team of Japanese and Chinese geochemists drilled through an almost unbroken sequence of Ediacaran to Lower Cambrian sediments near the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtse River and analysed for 44Ca and 42Ca (Sawaki, Y. et al. 2014. The anomalous Ca cycle in the Ediacaran ocean: Evidence from Ca isotopes preserved in carbonates in the Three Gorges area, South China. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1070-1089) calibrated to time by U-Pb dating of volcanic ash layers in the sequence (Okada, Y. et al. 2014. New chronological constraints for Cryogenian to Cambrian rocks in the Three Gorges, Weng’an and Chengjiang areas, South China. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1027-1044). They found that there were significant changes in the ratio between the two isotopes. The isotopic ratio underwent a rapid decrease, an equally abrupt increase then a decrease around the start of the Cambrian, which coincided with a major upward ‘spike’ and then a broad increase in the 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratio in the Lower Cambrian. The authors ascribe this to an increasing Ca ion concentration in sea water through the Ediacaran and a major perturbation just before the Cambrian Explosion, which happens to coincide with Sr-isotope evidence for a major influx of isotopically old material derived from erosion of the continental crust. As discussed in Origin of the arms race (May 2012) perhaps the appearance of animals’ hard parts did indeed result from initial secretions of calcium compounds outside cells to protect them from excess calcium’s toxic effects and were then commandeered for protective armour or offensive tools of predation.

"SNOWBALL EARTH" - 640 million years ago

Artists impression of a Snowball Earth event 640 Ma ago (credit: guano via Flickr)

Is there is a link between the Cambrian Explosion and the preceding Snowball Earth episodes of the Cryogenian with their associated roller coaster excursions in carbon isotopes? Xingliang Zhang and colleagues at Northwest University in Xian, China (Zhang, X. et al. 2014. Triggers for the Cambrian explosion: Hypotheses and problems.  Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 896-909) propose that fluctuating Cryogenian environmental conditions conspiring with massive nutrient influxes to the oceans and boosts in oxygenation of sea water through the Ediacaran set the scene for early Cambrian biological events. The nutrient boost may have been through increased transfer o f water from mantle to the surface linked to the start of subduction of wet lithosphere and expulsion of fluids from it as a result of the geotherm cooling through a threshold around 600 Ma (Maruyama, S. et al. 2014. Initiation of leaking Earth: An ultimate trigger of the Cambrian explosion. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 910-944). Alternatively the nutrient flux may have arisen by increased erosion as a result of plume-driven uplift (Santosh, M. et al. 2014. The Cambrian Explosion: Plume-driven birth of the second ecosystem on Earth. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 945-965).

A bolder approach, reflected in the title of the Special Issue, seeks an interstellar trigger (Kataoka, R. et al. 2014. The Nebula Winter: The united view of the snowball Earth, mass extinctions, and explosive evolution in the late Neoproterozoic and Cambrian periods. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1153-1163). This looks to encounters between the Solar System and dust clouds or supernova remnants as it orbited the galactic centre: a view that surfaces occasionally in several other contexts. Such chance events may have been climatically and biologically catastrophic: a sort of nebular winter, far more pervasive than the once postulated nuclear winter of a 3rd World War. That is perhaps going a little too far beyond the constraints of evidence, for there should be isotopic and other geochemical signs that such an event took place. It also raises yet the issue that life on Earth is and always has been unique in the galaxy and perhaps the known universe due to a concatenation of diverse chance events, without structure in time or order, which pushed living processes to outcomes whose probabilities of repetition are infinitesimally small.

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