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October 4, 2013

PETERS: An explosion in the history of life

(Continued)

The Ediacara animals were simple, but for a time they were the most complex creatures on Earth. All of that changed dramatically during Cambrian times. This was the period part of which is known as the “Cambrian Explosion,” a time that life became rapidly much more complex.

One place that preserved an interesting slice of life in the Cambrian is what’s termed the Burgess Shale from high in the mountains of British Columbia. You might say the rocks there are from the “mid-explosionary” times. What’s fascinating about them is they preserve some animals we can easily recognize as like their modern counterparts, like brachiopods, but also many strange animals. Just for example, one of the oddballs is Opabina, an animal that had five eyes and a nose-like structure a bit like an elephant’s trunk. Another of the strange animals is named Hallucigenia because it seems to be more of a hallucination than a standard animal. For reasons we won’t ever fully know, the “oddballs” went extinct and the animals that occupied part of the blueprint of life more like our own survived and flourished.

One of the interesting questions about the Cambrian explosion is what might have triggered it. Recently Harvard’s Erik Sperling and his colleagues published evidence they argue shows an increase in the air’s oxygen content at the time the rapid diversification started. Their paper appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Higher levels of oxygen, the theory goes, could support animals that had to move around to pursue prey, and then eat and digest them. Once there were predators on the scene, prey animals had to develop defenses like hard shells for protection. The “arms race” between prey and predator species had begun and has been firmly established in life’s blueprint from then until now.

And you thought there wasn’t a connection between the history of animal life and international relations!

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is the author of “Planet Rock Doc.” This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU.

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