The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough (II)

I decided to write one more post (this one) about the book and leave it at that. Go here for my first post about the book, which has some general remarks about the book, as well as a lot of relevant links to articles from wikipedia which cover topics also covered in the book. Below I have added some observations from the second half of the book.

“Use of bedrock geology to reconstruct ancient continental positions relies on the idea that if two separated continents were once joined to form a single, larger continent, then there ought to be distinctive geological terranes (such as mineral belts, mountain chains, bodies of igneous rock of similar age, and other roughly linear to irregularly-shaped large-scale geologic features) that were once contiguous but are now separated. Matching of these features can provide clues to the positions of continents that were once together. […] The main problem with using bedrock geology features to match continental puzzle pieces together is that many of the potentially most useful linear geologic features on the continents (such as volcanic arcs or chains of volcanoes, and continental margin fold belts or parallel mountain chains formed by compression of strata) are parallel to the edge of the continent. Therefore, these features generally run parallel to rift fractures, and are less likely to continue and be recognizable on any continent that was once connected to the continent in question.

Paleomagnetic evidence is an important tool for the determination of ancient continent positions and for the reconstruction of supercontinents. Nearly all rock types, be they sedimentary or igneous, contain minerals that contain the elements iron or titanium. Many of these iron- and titanium-bearing minerals are magnetic. […] The magnetization of a crystal of a magnetic mineral (such as magnetite) is established immediately after the mineral crystallizes from a volcanic melt (lava) but before it cools below the Curie point temperature. Each magnetic mineral has its own specific Curie point. […] As the mineral grain passes through the Curie point, the ambient magnetic field is “frozen” into the crystal and will remain unchanged until the crystal is destroyed by weathering or once again heated above the Curie point. This “locking in” of the magnetic signal in igneous rock crystals is the crucial event for paleomagnetism, for it indicates the direction of magnetic north at the time the crystal cooled (sometime in the distant geologic past for most igneous rocks). The ancient latitudinal position of the rock (and the continent of which it is a part) can be determined by measuring the direction of the crystal’s magnetization. For ancient rocks, this direction can be quite different from the direction of present day magnetic north. […] Paleomagnetic reconstruction is a form of geological analysis that is, unfortunately, fraught with uncertainties. The original magnetization is easily altered by weathering and metamorphism, and can confuse or obliterate the original magnetic signal. An inherent limitation of paleomagnetic reconstruction of ancient continental positions is that the magnetic remanence only gives information concerning the rocks’ latitudinal position, and gives no clue as to the original longitudinal position of the rocks in question. For example, southern Mexico and central India, although nearly half a world apart, are both at about 20 degrees North latitude, and, therefore, lavas cooling in either country would have essentially the same primary magnetic remanence. One of the few ways to get information about the ancient longitudinal positions of continents is to use comparison of life forms on different continents. The study of ancient distributions of organisms is called paleobiogeography.”

“Photosynthesis is generally considered to be a characteristic of plants in the traditional usage of the term “plant.” Nonbiologists are sometimes surprised to learn that [some] animals are photosynthetic […] One might argue that marine animals with zooxanthellae (symbiotic protists) are not truly photosynthetic because it is the protists that do the photosynthesis, not the animal. The protists just happen to be inside the animal. We would argue that this is not an important consideration, since photosynthesis in all eukaryotic (nucleated) cells is accomplished by chloroplasts, tiny organelles that are the cell’s photosynthesis factories. Chloroplasts are now thought by many biologists to have arisen by a symbiosis event in which a small, photosynthetic moneran took up symbiotic residence within a larger microbe […]. The symbiotic relationship eventually became so well established that it became an obligatory relationship for both the host microbe and the smaller symbiont moneran. Reproductive provisions were made to pass the genetic material of the symbiont, as well as the host, on to succeeding generations. It would sound strange to describe an oak as a “multicellular alga invaded by photosynthetic moneran symbionts,” but that is — in essence — what a tree is. Animals with photosynthetic protists in their bodies are able to create food internally, in the same way that an oak tree can, so we feel that these animals can be correctly called photosynthetic. […] Many of the most primitive types of living metazoa contain photosymbiotic
microbes or chloroplasts derived from microbes.”

“The most obvious reason for any organism, regardless of what kingdom it belongs to, to evolve a leaf-shaped body is to maximize its surface area. Leaf shape evolves in response to factors in addition to surface area requirement, but the surface area requirement, in all cases we are aware of, is the most important factor. […] Leaves of modern plants and Ediacaran animals probably evolved similar shapes for the same reason, namely, maximization of surface area. […] Photosymbiosis is not the only possible departure from heterotrophic feeding, the usual method of food acquisition for modern animals. Seilacher (1984) notes that flat bodies are good for absorption of simple compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, needed for one type of chemosymbiosis. In chemosymbiosis as in photosymbiosis, microbes (in this case bacteria) are held within an animal’s tissues as paying guests. The bacteria are able to use the energy stored in hydrogen sulphide molecules that diffuse into the host animal’s tissues. The bacteria use the hydrogen sulfide to create food, using biochemical reactions that would be impossible for animals to do by themselves. The bacteria use some of the food for themselves, but great excesses are produced and passed on to the host animal’s tissues. […] There may be important similarities between the ecologies of
[…] flattened Ediacaran creatures and the modern deep sea vent faunas. […] A form of chemotrophy (feeding on chemicals) that does not involve symbiosis is simple absorption of nutrients dissolved in sea water. Although this might not seem a particularly efficient way of obtaining food, there are tremendous amounts of “unclaimed” organic material dissolved in sea water. Monerans allow these nutrients to diffuse into their cells, a fact well known to microbiologists. Less well known is the fact that larger organisms can feed in this way also. Benthic foraminifera up to 38 millimeters long from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, take up dissolved organic matter largely as a function of the surface area of their branched bodies”

“Although there is as of yet no unequivocal proof, it seems reasonable to infer from their shapes that members of the Ediacaran fauna used photosymbiosis, chemosymbiosis, and direct nutrient absorption to satisfy their food needs. Since these methods do not involve killing, eating, and digesting other living things, we will refer to them as “soft path” feeding strategies. Heterotrophic organisms use “hard path” feeding strategies because they need to use up the bodies of other organisms for energy. The higher in the food pyramid, the “harder” the feeding strategy, on up to the keystone predator (top carnivore) at the top of any particular ecosystem’s trophic pyramid. It is important to note that the term “hard,” as used here, does not necessarily imply that autotrophic organisms have any easier a time obtaining their food than do heterotrophic organisms. Green plants are not very efficient at converting sunlight to food; sunlight can be thought of as an elusive prey because it is not a concentrated energy source […]. Low food concentrations are a major difficulty encountered by organisms employing soft path feeding strategies. Deposit feeding is intermediate between hard and soft paths. […] Filter feeding, or capturing food suspended in the water, also has components of both hard and soft paths because suspension feeders can take both living and nonliving food from the water.”

“Probing deposit feeders […] began to excavate sediments to depths of several centimeters at the beginning of the Cambrian. Dwelling burrows several centimeters in length, such as Skolithos, first appeared in the Cambrian, and provided protection for filter-feeding animals. If a skeleton is broadly defined as a rigid body support, a burrow is in essence a skeleton formed of sediment […] Movement of metazoans into the substrate had profound implications for sea floor marine ecology. One aspect of the environment that controls the number and types of organisms living in the environment is called its dimensionality […]. Two-dimensional (or Dimension 2) environments tend to be flat, whereas three-dimensional environments (Dimension 3) have, to a greater or lesser degree, a third dimension. This third dimension can be either in an upward or a downward direction, or a combination of both directions. The Vendian sea floor was essentially a two-dimensional environment. […] With the probable exception of some of the stalked frond fossils, most Vendian soft-bodied forms hugged the sea floor. Deep burrowers added a third dimension to the benthos (sea floor communities), creating a three-dimensional environment where a two-dimensional situation had prevailed. The greater the dimensionality in any given environment, the longer the food chain and the taller the trophic pyramid can be […]. If the appearance of abundant predators is any indication, lengthening of the food chain seems to be an important aspect of the Cambrian explosion. Changes in animal anatomy and intelligence can be linked to this lengthening of the food chain. Most Cambrian animals are three-dimensional creatures, not flattened like many of their Vendian predecessors. Animals like mollusks and worms, even if they lack mineralized skeletons, are able to rigidify their bodies with the use of a water-filled internal skeleton called a coelom […] This fluid-filled cavity gives an animal’s body stiffness, and acts much like a turgid, internal, water balloon. A coelom allows animals to burrow in sediment in ways that a flattened animal (such as, for instance, a flatworm) cannot. It is most likely that a coelom first evolved in those Vendian shallow scribble-trail makers that were contemporaries of the large soft-bodied fossils. Some of these Ediacaran burrows show evidence of peristaltic burrowing. Inefficient peristaltic burrowing can be done without a coelom, but with a coelom it becomes dramatically more effective.”

Bilateral symmetry is important when considering the behavior of […] early coelomate animals. The most likely animal to evolve a brain is one with bilateral symmetry. Concomitant with the emergence of animals during the Vendian was the origin of brains. The Cambrian explosion was the first cerebralization or encephalization event. As part of the increase in the length of the food chain discussed above, higher-level consumers such as top or keystone predators established a mode of life that requires the seeking out and attacking of prey. These activities are greatly aided by having a brain able to organize and control complex behavior. […] Specialized light receptors seem to be a characteristic of all animals and many other types of organisms; […] photoreceptors have originated independently in at least forty and perhaps as many as sixty groups. Most animal phyla have at a minimum several pigmented eye spots. But advanced vision (i. e., compound or image-forming eyes) tied directly into a centralized brain is not common or well developed until the Cambrian. The tendency to have eyes is more pronounced for bilateral than for radial animals. […] some of the earliest trilobites had large compound eyes. Trilobites were probably not particularly smart by modern standards, but chances are that their behavioral capabilities far outstripped any that had existed during the early Vendian. […] Actively moving or vagile predators are, as a rule, smarter than their prey, because of the more rigorous requirements of information processing in a predatory life mode. Anomalocaris as a seek-and-destroy top predator may have been the brainiest Early Cambrian animal.”

“why didn’t brains and advanced predation develop much earlier that they did? A simple, thought experiment may help address this problem. Consider a jellyfish 1 mm in length and a cylindrical worm 1 mm in length. Increase the size (linear dimension) of each (by growth of the individual or by evolutionary change over thousands of generations) one hundred times. […] The worm will need internal plumbing because of its cylindrical body. The jellyfish won’t be as dependent on plumbing because its body has a higher surface area. […] Our enlarged, 10 cm long worm will possess a brain which has a volume one million times greater than the brain of its 1 mm predecessor (assuming that the shape of the brain remains constant). The jellyfish will also get more nerve tissue as it enlarges. But its nervous system is spread out in a netlike fashion; at most, its nerve tissue will be concentrated at a few radially symmetric points. The potential for complex and easily reprogrammed behavior, as well as sophisticated processing of sensory input data, is much greater in the animal with the million times larger brain (containing at least a million times as many brain cells as its tiny predecessor). Complex neural pathways are more likely to form in the larger brain. This implies no mysterious tendency for animals to grow larger brains; perfectly successful, advanced animals (echinoderms) and even slow-moving predators (sea spiders) get along fine without much brain. But centralized nerve tissue can process information better than a nerve net and control more complex responses to stimuli. Once brains were used to locate food, the world would never again be the same. This can be thought of as a “brain revolution” that permanently changed the world a half billion years ago.”

“There is little doubt that organisms produced oxygen before 2 billion years ago, but this oxygen was unable to accumulate as a gas because iron dissolved in seawater combined with the oxygen to form rust (iron oxide), a precipitate that sank, chemically inactive, to accumulate on the sea floor. Just as salt has accumulated in the oceans over billions of years, unoxidized (or reduced) iron was abundant in the seas before 2 billion years ago, and was available to “neutralize” the waste oxygen. Thus, dissolved iron performed an important oxygen disposal service; oxygen is a deadly toxin to organisms that do not have special enzymes to limit its reactivity. Once the reduced iron was removed from sea water (and precipitated on the sea floor as Precambrian iron formations; much of the iron mined for our automobiles is derived from these formations), oxygen began to accumulate in water and air. Life in the seas was either restricted to environments where oxygen remained rare, or was forced to develop enzymes […] capable of detoxifying oxygen. Oxygen could also be used by heterotrophic organisms to “burn” the biologic fuel captured in the form of the bodies of their prey. […] Much research has focused on lowered levels of atmospheric oxygen during the Precambrian. The other alternative, that oxygen levels were higher at times during the Precambrian than at present has not been much discussed. Once the “sinks” for free oxygen, such as dissolved iron, were saturated, there is little that would have prevented oxygen levels in the Precambrian from getting much higher than they are today. This is particularly so since there is no evidence for the presence of Precambrian land plants which could have acted as a negative feedback for continued increases in oxygen levels” [Here’s a recent-ish paper on the topicdo note that there’s an important distinction to be made between atmospheric oxygen levels and the oxygen levels of the oceans].

August 4, 2014 - Posted by | biology, books, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology

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