Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

2 explosive evolutionary events shaped early history of multicellular life

07.01.2008
Scientists have known for some time that most major groups of complex animals appeared in the fossils record during the Cambrian Explosion, a seemingly rapid evolutionary event that occurred 542 million years ago.

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."

Susan Trulove | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.vt.edu
http://www.paleo.geos.vt.edu/Shuhai/
http://www.geos.vt.edu/people/michalk/

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Volcanoes and glaciers combine as powerful methane producers
20.11.2018 | Lancaster University

nachricht Massive impact crater from a kilometer-wide iron meteorite discovered in Greenland
15.11.2018 | Faculty of Science - University of Copenhagen

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: First diode for magnetic fields

Innsbruck quantum physicists have constructed a diode for magnetic fields and then tested it in the laboratory. The device, developed by the research groups led by the theorist Oriol Romero-Isart and the experimental physicist Gerhard Kirchmair, could open up a number of new applications.

Electric diodes are essential electronic components that conduct electricity in one direction but prevent conduction in the opposite one. They are found at the...

Im Focus: Nonstop Tranport of Cargo in Nanomachines

Max Planck researchers revel the nano-structure of molecular trains and the reason for smooth transport in cellular antennas.

Moving around, sensing the extracellular environment, and signaling to other cells are important for a cell to function properly. Responsible for those tasks...

Im Focus: UNH scientists help provide first-ever views of elusive energy explosion

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.

Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...

Im Focus: A Chip with Blood Vessels

Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.

Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...

Im Focus: A Leap Into Quantum Technology

Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.

In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Optical Coherence Tomography: German-Japanese Research Alliance hosted Medical Imaging Conference

19.11.2018 | Event News

“3rd Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP 2018” Attracts International Experts and Users

09.11.2018 | Event News

On the brain’s ability to find the right direction

06.11.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Helping to Transport Proteins Inside the Cell

21.11.2018 | Life Sciences

Meta-surface corrects for chromatic aberrations across all kinds of lenses

21.11.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Removing toxic mercury from contaminated water

21.11.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>