Massive geographic change may have triggered explosion of animal life

October 31, 2014
A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Credit: Ian Dalziel

A new analysis of geologic history may help solve the riddle of the "Cambrian explosion," the rapid diversification of animal life in the fossil record 530 million years ago that has puzzled scientists since the time of Charles Darwin.

A paper by Ian Dalziel of The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences, published in the November issue of Geology, a journal of the Geological Society of America, suggests a major tectonic event may have triggered the rise in and other environmental changes that accompanied the apparent burst of life.

The Cambrian explosion is one of the most significant events in Earth's 4.5-billion-year history. The surge of evolution led to the sudden appearance of almost all modern animal groups. Fossils from the Cambrian explosion document the rapid evolution of life on Earth, but its cause has been a mystery.

The sudden burst of new life is also called "Darwin's dilemma" because it appears to contradict Charles Darwin's hypothesis of gradual evolution by natural selection.

"At the boundary between the Precambrian and Cambrian periods, something big happened tectonically that triggered the spreading of shallow ocean water across the continents, which is clearly tied in time and space to the sudden explosion of multicellular, hard-shelled life on the planet," said Dalziel, a research professor at the Institute for Geophysics and a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Beyond the sea level rise itself, the ancient geologic and geographic changes probably led to a buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere and a change in ocean chemistry, allowing more complex life-forms to evolve, he said.

The paper is the first to integrate geological evidence from five present-day continents—North America, South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica—in addressing paleogeography at that critical time.

Dalziel proposes that present-day North America was still attached to the southern continents until sometime into the Cambrian period. Current reconstructions of the globe's geography during the early Cambrian show the ancient continent of Laurentia—the ancestral core of North America—as already having separated from the supercontinent Gondwanaland.

In contrast, Dalziel suggests the development of a deep oceanic gateway between the Pacific and Iapetus (ancestral Atlantic) oceans isolated Laurentia in the early Cambrian, a geographic makeover that immediately preceded the global and apparent explosion of life.

"The reason people didn't make this connection before was because they hadn't looked at all the rock records on the different present-day continents," he said.

The rock record in Antarctica, for example, comes from the very remote Ellsworth Mountains.

"People have wondered for a long time what rifted off there, and I think it was probably North America, opening up this deep seaway," Dalziel said. "It appears ancient North America was initially attached to Antarctica and part of South America, not to Europe and Africa, as has been widely believed."

Although the new analysis adds to evidence suggesting a massive tectonic shift caused the seas to rise more than half a billion years ago, Dalziel said more research is needed to determine whether this new chain of paleogeographic events can truly explain the sudden rise of multicellular life in the .

"I'm not claiming this is the ultimate explanation of the Cambrian explosion," Dalziel said. "But it may help to explain what was happening at that time."

Explore further: Darwin's dilemma resolved: Biologists measure evolution's Big Bang

More information: To read the paper go to

Related Stories

Research team finds new explanation for Cambrian explosion

November 29, 2011

( -- For hundreds of years, researchers from many branches of science have sought to explain the veritable explosion in diversity in animal organisms that started approximately 541 million years ago here on planet ...

Recommended for you

Entire Himalayan arc can produce large earthquakes

October 26, 2016

The main fault at the foot of the Himalayan mountains can likely generate destructive, major earthquakes along its entire 2,400-kilometer (1,500-mile) length, a new study finds. Combining historical documents with new geologic ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 31, 2014
I wonder what could have caused a flood over the continental land masses? Isnt the question when was the coastline submerged under 300 feet of water? And how?
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Oct 31, 2014
This article suggests that oxygen may have been too low before the Ediacaran to support life. This is one of the factors that led to the Cambrian Explosion, apparently.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2014
Da Schneib: Yeah, the rise in oxygen levels is definitely a factor that plays into the equation. What I'm wondering now is that if "the spreading of shallow ocean water across the continents" as stated in the article also lead to expansion of suitable habitats for cyanobacteria and thus boosted the oxygen production that made the Cambrian explosion possible.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2014
@katesisco: Apparently the rifting eventually caused the submergence: "a massive tectonic shift caused the seas to rise".
5 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2014
[ctd, after laptop acting up] So i guess you have to read Dalziel's paper for his model to know more detail of what he propose.
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 03, 2014
"It appears ancient North America was initially attached to Antarctica and part of South America, not to Europe and Africa, as has been widely believed."
How does he explain the Atlantic rift and the geology in Scotland and eastern North America being identical, even to the point of strata match?
Perhaps in the full paper? If so, this article confuses more than a little.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2014
Its awesome that the image points out all the major continents or subcontinents... and then Texas.
4.7 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2014

How does he explain the Atlantic rift and the geology in Scotland and eastern North America being identical, even to the point of strata match? .

If you look at the map you can see Scotland or part of it at the bottom right of Laurentia. I thought that Laurentia was connected to the east coat of Australia, rather than Antarctica.

If the sea flooded over the continents, it means that the oceans held less water. Perhaps much new ocean crust formed through rifting. It would be hotter, less dense and thicker, pushing up the ocean floor and the water.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.