Over half a billion years ago the biological world was a more peaceful place, or so the story goes. Simple multicellular organisms abounded, doing little more than filtering out food particles from the ocean waters. Then, in a geological blink of an eye, animals began to diversify, irreversibly changing the prevailing ecosystems, paving the way for modern life. They began eating each other, causing some to burrow into the sediment deeper and deeper, disturbing the slimy microbial matgrounds which had been key in the fading Ediacaran environs. Some developed armour, sporting hard parts which protected their soft flesh, leaving behind more distinct traces in the fossil record. Yet others became more mobile, learning to swim around to evade predators, or to seek out their own prey.
This event is often referred to as the Cambrian Explosion and has earned the nickname “biology’s Big Bang”. It is one of the most important events in the history of life on Earth and, due to its singular nature, is one of the most misunderstood. Misinformation proliferates on the internet, not least due to anti-evolution websites considering it to be a weapon in their arsenal, but also because it is a very mysterious time, where datasets often support multiple interpretations and cause and effect are difficult to untangle.
When Charles Darwin first pondered the Cambrian mystery, he was facing a fossil record where no Precambrian fossils were known – the lowest rocks contained the surprisingly complicated trilobites, not at all what he had hoped to see. Darwin invoked the incompleteness and imperfection of the fossil record as his explanation, in the hope that someday new fossils would elucidate this remarkable absence. It wasn’t until 1958 when Precambrian fossils were first recognised, but even they did little to diminish the seeming leap in complexity in the Cambrian. The Burgess Shale fossils, found by Charles Walcott in 1909, revealed a menagerie of bizarre creatures, many of which clearly had modern body plans, but many others seemed to have unique body plans, as though this Cambrian diversification was even bigger than expected.
The Burgess Shale was properly studied from the 1970s onwards and by the 1990s the diversification had been established as one of the key mysteries of palaeontology. By this point, a picture of the Cambrian Explosion had emerged which provided quite the conundrum. Those Precambrian fossils had originally been interpreted as belonging to modern animal groups but had since been questioned and even proposed as belonging to their own kingdom. Then, in perhaps as little as four million years, every modern phylum arrived on the scene, along with potentially three times as many more. It was an unprecedented diversification, expounded beautifully by Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life. This is a picture which crops up repeatedly, despite twenty years of advances which show it to be wrong. In future posts, I will explain what has changed in our understanding of the Cambrian Explosion, which questions have been answered, and the mysteries that lie ahead.