Research shows that the earliest sea creatures on Earth powered evolution by stirring the water

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Graphic abstract. Credit: Current biology (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.04.059

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Graphic abstract. Credit: Current biology (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.04.059

A study involving the University of Cambridge has used virtual reproductions of the earliest animal ecosystems, known as marine animal forests, to demonstrate the role they played in the evolution of our planet.

Using state-of-the-art computer simulations of fossils from the Ediacaran period – about 565 million years ago – scientists discovered how these animals mixed the surrounding seawater. This may have affected the distribution of important resources, such as food particles, and increased local oxygen levels.

Through this process, scientists believe these early communities could have played a crucial role in shaping the initial emergence of large and complex organisms prior to a major evolutionary radiation of various forms of animal life, the so-called Cambrian ‘explosion’.

Over longer periods of time, these changes have allowed life forms to perform more complicated functions, such as those associated with the evolution of new feeding and exercise styles.

The research was led by the Natural History Museum and is published today in the journal Current biology.

Dr. Emily Mitchell from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, co-author of the report, said: “It is exciting to hear that the very first animals from 580 million years ago had a significant impact on their environment, despite being unable to to move or swim. We found that they confused the water, allowing resources to spread more widely, possibly encouraging more evolution.”

Scientists know from modern marine environments that nutrients such as food and oxygen are carried in seawater, and that animals can influence water flow in ways that affect the distribution of these resources.

To test how far back this process goes in Earth’s history, the team looked at some of the earliest examples of marine animal communities known from the rocks at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, Canada. This world-famous fossil site perfectly preserves early life forms thanks to a covering of volcanic ash (referred to as an “Ediacaran Pompeii”).

Although some of these life forms resemble plants, analysis of their anatomy and growth strongly suggests that they are animals. The exceptional preservation of the fossils allowed the scientists to recreate digital models of key species, which were used as a basis for further computational analyses.

First author Dr. Susana Gutarra, research associate at the Natural History Museum, said: “We used ecological models and computer simulations to investigate how 3D virtual assemblages of Ediacaran life forms influenced water flow. Our results showed that these communities were capable of ecological functions that were similar are with those in current marine ecosystems.”

The research found that one of the most important Ediacaran organisms for disrupting water flow was the cabbage-shaped animal Bradgatia, named after Bradgate Park in England. The Bradgatia from Mistaken Point are among some of the largest fossils known from this site, measuring more than 50 centimeters in diameter.

Due to their influence on the water around them, the scientists think these Ediacaran organisms may have been able to increase local oxygen concentrations. This biological mixing may also have had an impact on the wider environment, possibly making other parts of the seabed more habitable and perhaps even stimulating evolutionary innovation.

Dr. Imran Rahman, lead author and principal investigator at the Natural History Museum, said: “The approach we have developed to study Ediacaran fossil communities is entirely new in paleontology and provides us with a powerful tool to study how past and present marine ecosystems shape their environment. can shape and influence.”

More information:
Susana Gutarra et al, Ediacaran marine animal forests and the ventilation of the oceans, Current biology (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.04.059

Magazine information:
Current biology

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