Scientists have known for some time that most major groups of complex animals appeared in the fossils record during the Cambrian Explosion, a seemingly rapid evolutionary event that occurred 542 million years ago. Now Virginia Tech paleontologists, using rigorous analytical methods, have identified another explosive evolutionary event that occurred about 33 million years earlier among macroscopic life forms unrelated to the Cambrian animals. They dubbed this earlier event the "Avalon Explosion."
The discovery, reported in the January 4 issue of Science, suggests that more than one explosive evolutionary event may have taken place during the early evolution of animals.
To test whether other major branches of life also evolved in an abrupt and explosive manner, Virginia Tech graduate students Bing Shen and Lin Dong, along with Xiao and Kowalewski, analyzed the Ediacara fossils: the oldest complex, multicellular organisms that had lived in oceans from 575 to 542 million years ago; that is, before the Cambrian Explosion of animals. "These Ediacara organisms do not have an ancestor-descendant relationship with the Cambrian animals, and most of them went extinct before the Cambrian Explosion," said Shen. “And this group of organisms – most species – seems to be distinct from the Cambrian animals.”
Surprisingly, however, as shown by Shen and colleagues, these earliest Ediacara life forms already occupied a full morphological range of body plans that would ever be realized through the entire history of Ediacara organisms. "In other words, major types of Ediacara organisms appeared at the dawn of their history, during the Avalon Explosion," Dong said. "Subsequently, Ediacara organisms diversified in White Sea time and then declined in Nama time. But, despite this notable waxing and waning in the number of species, the morphological range of the Avalon organisms were never exceeded through the subsequent history of Ediacara."
Scientists are still unsure what were the driving forces behind the rapid morphological expansion during the Avalon explosion, and why the morphological range did not expand, shrink, or shift during the subsequent White Sea and Nama stages.
"But, one thing seems certain -- the evolution of earliest macroscopic and complex life also went through an explosive event before to the Cambrian Explosion,” Xiao said. “It now appears that at the dawn of the macroscopic life, between 575 and 520 million years ago, there was not one, but at least two major episodes of abrupt morphological expansion."
Really it ought to be called the Ediacaran, Avalon, or Vendian Explosion. It has little to do with the subsequent evolution of animal life as far as we can tell, but, still, it seems to have been an important stage if for no other reason than it tells an interesting tale in and of itself about life. And its extinction.