October 7, 2013 in City

Research shows oxygen could have caused prehistoric growth

E. Kirsten Peters
 

Many scientists would say life on Earth has a complex but single blueprint. For example, many animals have left hand and right hand parts that are mirror images of each other. There are lots of other regularities, such as the fact that all mammals have backbones.

Some of the most interesting parts of life’s blueprint are the relationships that have predators feasting on their prey. The predator-prey relationship took time to become established. Here’s the story:

Life has been around for about 4 billion years. At first, life was mostly single-celled organisms living in the sea. Then a form of colonial algae turned up that, although simple by modern standards, may have had a lot to do with slowly producing oxygen for the atmosphere.

As time went on, some unique soft-bodied life forms appeared. It took a while for geologists and paleontologists to see them in the fossil record simply because they were small and didn’t have “hard parts” like shells that could clearly be preserved. Instead these animals looked something like worms or small fronds.

Those animals were simple, but for a time they were the most complex creatures on Earth. All of that changed dramatically during Cambrian times, part of which is known as the “Cambrian Explosion” because 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 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, like brachiopods, but also many strange animals. Just for example, one of the oddballs is Opabinia, an animal that had five eyes and a noselike 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 predators were 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, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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