The Cambrian Explosion:
Around 600 million years ago, the fossil records appear for large, soft-bodied multi-cellular animals that completely lacked the skeletal hard parts. They were called Edicardian fauna, after the name of the place from where they were first discovered. These animals are compared to modern-day worms or jellyfish. The animals had a flat appearance with radial symmetry. They showed variation in their size ranging from 1cm to less than 1m. This suggests that a long period of evolution might have occurred that led to the development of these animals.
Following this, modern-day animals such as flatworms, jellyfish, annelids, earthworms, mollusks, insects, and sponges, appeared within a period. Their appearance is described as the Cambrian explosion. The most important fossil evidence of this period comes from the Burgess Shale of Colombia. They did not only contain the evidence for the early animals but also preserved the skeletal parts of the animal as well (i.e., the entire animal body was preserved). The fossils also provided the evidence for predatorâ€“prey relationship and tell us how the evolution must have taken place in the long run.
Now the question arises, how did such a huge transformation occur? What drives the Cambrian explosion? It is believed that the oxygen concentration slowly began to increase in the atmosphere, and at a point when it supported a high metabolic rate, it led to the evolution of larger and complex bodied organisms. Increased calcium levels of the ocean also played some role in the development of skeletal structures. Large deposits of calcium carbonate supported hard body parts such as teeth and skeleton. Increased phosphate and nitrate content also helped in the primary development.
This all happened after the extinction of Edicardian fauna that allowed new ecological niches to be exploited by the new animals. Genetic factors also played a crucial role. The genetic toolkit underwent a gradual evolution, and this helped in the development process during the Cambrian explosion.
However, the Cambrian explosion is not supported by all scientists. Some consider that evolution of multi-cellular animals occurred around 1000 million years ago and this is supported by the fossil embryos found in China. The fossil evidence shows more complex organisms than jellyfish and sponges, suggesting that multi-cellular organisms appeared much before.
However, whenever the origin occurred, multi-cellular animals occupied the land during the Cambrian period. These include the arthropods and centipedes.
Evolution of Vertebrates:
The diversification of animals within the sea only included the invertebrates and included graptolites, brachiopods, cephalopods, crinoids, and condonts. Condonts are now placed under chordates.
The defining characteristics of vertebrates include the dorsal nerve cord, notochord, pharyngeal slits, and a tail. Fish are also included in the phylum chordate. Initially present fish were jawless and thought to have evolved from a chordate ancestor. The first jawless fish known to have evolved is Haikouichthys eracicunensis. The fish was small in size equal to the size of a thumb. The fish continued to evolve, and during the same time, colonization by plants and animals began on the land. Arthropods were the first to become a permanent colonizer of the land followed by spiders, centipedes, and mites. Land colonization by animals led them to encounter several problems such as reproduction, dispersal, water conservation, and gas exchange. Not all the taxa were able to cope up with these problems.
The amphibians evolved during periods of drought. This provided them an advantage to share two different habitats. Colonization of dry regions led to the evolution of reptiles. The greatest evolution was seen by mammals that originated from one lineage of reptiles. Also, one group of reptiles led to the evolution of dinosaur lineage. Further modifications resulted at the end of the dinosaur age and the development of the modern-day mammal that we see today.
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