The Cambrian explosion is feted as the moment where complex animals burst onto the scene, but the enigmatic Ediacaran creatures that came first are rewriting the history of life on Earth
6 November 2019
By Colin Barras
LIFE appeared on our planet more than 3.5 billion years ago and consisted exclusively of microbes for the next 3 billion years. Then, about 539 million years ago, everything changed.
In the geological blink of an eye, the seas were filled with large and complex animals, including worms with legs and fearsome spikes, creatures with a trunk-like nose and five eyes, and giant shrimp-like predators with mouths like pineapple rings.
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This evolutionary starburst is known as the Cambrian explosion. It is one of the most significant moments in life’s history on Earth because it is the point at which species that are clearly related to today’s animals first appeared. It is seen as evolution’s big bang.
But over the past few years, geologists have begun to have second thoughts. Newly discovered fossils and careful analysis of ones found decades ago suggest that animals were thriving in the period before the Cambrian. As a result, some people are now arguing that the explosion of animal life started about 12 million years earlier. Others are questioning whether it is possible to define a distinct explosion at all.
You could be forgiven for thinking that shifting the dawn of the animal revolution from 539 to 551 million years ago isn’t that big a deal. But evolution can do a lot in that length of time: the entire span of human evolution probably fits within …