Early metazoan life: divergence, environment and ecology
Douglas H. Erwin
Published 9 November 2015.DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0036
Recent molecular clock studies date the origin of Metazoa to 750–800 million years ago (Ma), roughly coinciding with evidence from geochemical proxies that oxygen levels rose from less than 0.1% present atmospheric level (PAL) to perhaps 1–3% PAL O2. A younger origin of Metazoa would require greatly increased substitution rates across many clades and many genes; while not impossible, this is less parsimonious. Yet the first fossil evidence for metazoans (the Doushantuo embryos) about 600 Ma is followed by the Ediacaran fossils after 580 Ma, the earliest undisputed bilaterians at 555 Ma, and an increase in the size and morphologic complexity of bilaterians around 542 Ma. This temporal framework suggests a missing 150–200 Myr of early metazoan history that encompasses many apparent novelties in the early evolution of the nervous system. This span includes two major glaciations, and complex marine geochemical changes including major changes in redox and other environmental changes. One possible resolution is that animals of these still unknown Cryogenian and early Ediacaran ecosystems were relatively simple, with highly conserved developmental genes involved in cell-type specification and simple patterning. In this model, complex nervous systems are a convergent phenomenon in bilaterian clades which occurred close to the time that larger metazoans appeared in the fossil record.
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