Now Virginia Tech paleontologists, using rigorous analytical methods, have identified another explosive evolutionary event that occurred about 33 million years earlier among macroscopic life forms unrelated to the Cambrian animals. They dubbed this earlier event the "Avalon Explosion."
The discovery, reported in the January 4 issue of Science, suggests that more than one explosive evolutionary event may have taken place during the early evolution of animals.
The Cambrian explosion event refers to the sudden appearance of most animal groups in a geologically short time period between 542 and 520 million years ago, in the early Cambrian Period. Although there were not as many animal species as in modern oceans, most (if not all) living animal groups were represented in the Cambrian oceans. "The explosive evolutionary pattern was a concern to Charles Darwin, because he expected that evolution happens at a slow and constant pace," said Shuhai Xiao, associate professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech. “Darwin’s perception could be represented by an inverted cone with ever expanding morphological range, but the fossil record of the Cambrian Explosion and since is better represented by a cylinder with a morphological radiation at the base and morphological constraint afterwards.”
Darwin reckoned that there should be long and hidden periods of animal evolution before the Cambrian Explosion, Xiao said.
But paleontologists have not found such evidence, and recently scientists have learned that biological evolution has not been moving on a smooth road. “Accelerated rates may characterize the early evolution of many groups of organisms,” said Michal Kowalewski, professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech.
To test whether other major branches of life also evolved in an abrupt and explosive manner, Virginia Tech graduate students Bing Shen and Lin Dong, along with Xiao and Kowalewski, analyzed the Ediacara fossils: the oldest complex, multicellular organisms that had lived in oceans from 575 to 542 million years ago; that is, before the Cambrian Explosion of animals. "These Ediacara organisms do not have an ancestor-descendant relationship with the Cambrian animals, and most of them went extinct before the Cambrian Explosion," said Shen. “And this group of organisms – most species – seems to be distinct from the Cambrian animals.”
But how did those Ediacara organisms first evolve, Shen asked. Did they also appear in an explosive evolutionary event, or is the Cambrian Explosion a truly unparalleled event"
“We identified 50 characters and mapped the distribution of these characters in more than 200 Ediacara species. These species cover three evolutionary stages of the entire Ediacara history across 33 million years,” said Shen.
The three successive evolutionary stages are represented by the Avalon, White Sea, and Nama assemblages (all named after localities where representative fossils of each stage can be found). The earliest Avalon stage was represented by relatively few species.
Surprisingly, however, as shown by Shen and colleagues, these earliest Ediacara life forms already occupied a full morphological range of body plans that would ever be realized through the entire history of Ediacara organisms. "In other words, major types of Ediacara organisms appeared at the dawn of their history, during the Avalon Explosion," Dong said. "Subsequently, Ediacara organisms diversified in White Sea time and then declined in Nama time. But, despite this notable waxing and waning in the number of species, the morphological range of the Avalon organisms were never exceeded through the subsequent history of Ediacara."
Kowalewski said their research team had not anticipated the discovery. “Using the scientific literature, we were trying to create a more rigorous reconstruction of the morphological history of Ediacara organisms,” he said.
The process involved adapting quantitative methods that had been used previously for studying morphological evolution of animals, but never applied to the enigmatic Ediacara organisms. “We think of diversity in terms of individual species. But species may be very similar in their overall body plan. For example, 50 species of fly may not differ much from one another in terms of their overall shape – they all represent the same body plan. On the other hand, a set of just three species that include a fly, a frog and an earthworm represent much more morphological variation. We can thus think of biodiversity not only in terms of how many different species there are but also how many fundamentally distinct body plans are being represented. Our approach combined both those approaches,” said Kowalewski.
“In addition, the method relies on converting different morphologies into numerical (binary) data. This strategy allows us to describe, more objectively and more consistently, enigmatic fossil life forms, which are preserved mostly as two-dimensional impressions and are not understood well in terms of function, ecology, or physiology,” Kowalewski said.
Scientists are still unsure what were the driving forces behind the rapid morphological expansion during the Avalon explosion, and why the morphological range did not expand, shrink, or shift during the subsequent White Sea and Nama stages.
"But, one thing seems certain -- the evolution of earliest macroscopic and complex life also went through an explosive event before to the Cambrian Explosion,” Xiao said. “It now appears that at the dawn of the macroscopic life, between 575 and 520 million years ago, there was not one, but at least two major episodes of abrupt morphological expansion."
NASA examines Peru's deadly rainfall
24.03.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Steep rise of the Bernese Alps
24.03.2017 | Universität Bern
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
24.03.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy