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Deep Time

Intro | Precambrian Eon | Paleozoic Era | Mesozoic Era | Cenozoic Era

Paleozoic Era: (543-248 mya)

Cambrian | Ordovician | Silurian | Devonian | Carboniferous | Permian



Cambrian Period (543-490 mya)

Land, which now covers about a third of the planet, remains devoid of life during the Cambrian period. Remnants of Rodinia, the dominant landmass during the late Proterozoic era, drift further apart. Where moving tectonic plates collide, mountain ranges form, especially on Gondwana, the largest of the fragments.

Atmospheric and marine oxygen levels reach new heights in the generally warm and stable climate. These environmental factors may help trigger an "explosion" in animal diversity. In the seas, some three dozen animal phyla first appear, each with a distinctive body plan. While several of these groups disappear over time -- beginning with a series of extinction episodes near the end of the Cambrian -- most persist (though greatly modified) to the present day.

543 mya: Hard-shelled animals

Beginning in the early Cambrian, many animals evolve hard external skeletons of all shapes and sizes that shield and support their bodies. Shells, tubes, and spines, made primarily of calcium phosphate or calcium carbonate, comprise a major part of the fossil record.

540 mya: Oldest arthropod fossils

Arthropods, which include the insects and crustaceans, will become the most diverse phylum both on land and in the oceans. They are known for their segmented bodies, jointed legs, well-defined head area, and hard outer coating, or cuticle. While the oldest definitive arthropod fossils, which were left in abundance by communities of bottom-dwelling sea creatures called trilobites, date to the early Cambrian, trace fossils suggest they may have appeared even earlier, during the Vendian period.

535 mya: Chordates

Members of the phylum Chordata, which include humans and all other vertebrates, have a stiff yet flexible rod that runs down the middle of the back, called a notochord. Made of cartilage-like material, not bone, the notochord provides support for the nerve cord. Other features characteristic of the chordate body plan are a tail and gill-like openings between the throat and the neck. In many chordates like the vertebrates, some of these features are apparent only in the early stages of embryonic development.


Did you know?

The oldest-known fossil chordate comes from the Chengjiang find in southern China. Like Pikaia, a two-inch creature from another find in Canada's Burgess Shale rock formation, Cathaymyrus is a small, wormlike marine creature. It is thought to be a fossil relative of modern lancelets, which are small, tapered filter feeders that live buried in the sand in shallow waters. Either Pikaia or Cathaymyrus -- or both -- may be the ancestors of all vertebrates.


530 mya: The Cambrian explosion

The basic body plans of the major animal phyla are established over a relatively short period of roughly 10 million years. All the major animal phyla that exist today -- about three dozen -- evolve from these Cambrian faunas.


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The Cambrian explosion (530-520 mya)

While scientists now know that animal life existed prior to the Cambrian explosion, the diversity of life that evolves during its 10 million years remains significant. While the soft-bodied Ediacaran animals had no protective coverings, many Cambrian animals evolved skeletons, such as shells or other brittle coatings. Among the more familiar groups to appear include sponges, brachiopods (lamp shells), spiny-skinned echinoderms, early gastropods (snails), cone-shelled cephalopods, and primitive arthropods called trilobites. Several other creatures that are unrelated to any currently living form also appear, but they die off after a short time.

A combination of environmental factors probably contributes to this evolutionary burst. Oxygen, which is plentiful in both the atmosphere and in the oceans, allows physically larger animals to evolve. Warm, free-flowing ocean currents probably carry these animals to new marine niches, where they adapt to new settings and evolve different characteristics.

Environmental factors alone, however, cannot explain why major animal phyla have not evolved in the 500 million years or so since the Cambrian explosion. Studies comparing fossilized embryos and a wide range of contemporary specimens suggest that homeobox genes -- genes that control whether certain cells specialize to form muscles, nerves, or glands, for example -- are remarkably similar in all species. The mutations that give rise to these control genes may be advantageous only in the earliest, simplest animals.



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Body plans

Members of a phylum share basic structural similarities, or "body plans." Representatives of the phylum Chordata, for instance, have nerve cords that run along their backs. But all chordates don't look the same. Certain individuals use fins and a tail to get around, while others use limbs.

At least 10 million animal species may exist today, yet there are only about 30 different phyla. How can we have such species variety within a limited set of body plans? Members of a phylum inherit the same basic genetic tool kit. Over time, some evolve with modified features and became new species. It might help to think of a phylum as a prototype car design and individual species as different models.

Fossils of the Burgess Shale

The Cambrian explosion is documented in an extraordinary fossil find. The Burgess Shale rock formation, discovered in 1909 in western Canada, contained examples of the variety of life that existed in the Cambrian period. These precursors of all life to come were preserved -- hard and soft parts alike -- in the fine mud that buried them in an underwater avalanche.


530 mya: Marine reefs

Marine reefs are important ecosystems that support a wide variety of organisms. They form in shallow, tropical waters and are highly sensitive to changes in ocean conditions, like fluctuations in temperature and sea level. The archaeocyathids, spongelike animals that build the first reefs, go extinct only 10-15 million years after they first appear. Among the major reef-building groups that succeed the archaeocyathids include stromatoporoids and, much later, corals.

500 mya: Gondwana forms

A remnant of the Rodinia supercontinent, Gondwana is the southern hemisphere's primary landmass throughout the Paleozoic era. The present-day continents Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America, as well as the subcontinent India, were originally parts of Gondwana.

Cambrian extinction


520 mya




Reef-builders and other shallow-water organisms go extinct


Sea-level changes, oxygen depletion


While the Cambrian period is witness to the evolution of several major animal groups, two extinction events -- the first coming about 520 mya -- each knock out 40-50 percent of marine genera. Tropical, shallow-water bottom dwellers are hit first, most likely due to an upwelling of cold, oxygen-poor waters from the deep sea. Then, the early reef builders perish when the sea level drops and the continental shelves -- their primary habitats -- are exposed. Successor reef-building animals, which include stromatoporoids and colonies of tiny "moss animals" called bryozoans, do not appear until the Ordovician period.

-> Go to the Ordovician Period

Intro | Precambrian Eon | Paleozoic Era | Mesozoic Era | Cenozoic Era

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