From “Evidence for a Geologic Trigger of the Cambrian Explosion” (ScienceDaily, Apr. 18, 2012), we learn,
Over several tens of millions of years — a relative blink of an eye in geologic terms — a burst of evolution led to a flurry of diversification and increasing complexity, including the expansion of multicellular organisms and the appearance of the first shells and skeletons.
And there is no consensus as to why.
New research shows that the answer may lie in a second geological curiosity — a dramatic boundary, known as the Great Unconformity, between ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks and younger sediments.
“The Great Unconformity is a very prominent geomorphic surface and there’s nothing else like it in the entire rock record,” says Shanan Peters, a geoscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the new work. Occurring worldwide, the Great Unconformity juxtaposes old rocks, formed billions of years ago deep within Earth’s crust, with relatively young Cambrian sedimentary rock formed from deposits left by shallow ancient seas that covered the continents just a half billion years ago.
The influx of ions to the oceans also likely posed a challenge to the organisms living there. “Your body has to keep a balance of these ions in order to function properly,” Peters explains. “If you have too much of one you have to get rid of it, and one way to get rid of it is to make a mineral.”
The time lag between the first appearance of animals and their subsequent acquisition of biominerals in the Cambrian is notable, Peters says. “It’s likely biomineralization didn’t evolve for something, it evolved in response to something — in this case, changing seawater chemistry during the formation of the Great Unconformity. Then once that happened, evolution took it in another direction.” Today those biominerals play essential roles as varied as protection (shells and spines), stability (bones), and predation (teeth and claws).
Interesting thesis, but it applies only to those life forms that were shelled; many were not. In fact, because soft-bodied creatures may stand less chance of preservation, they could have been more common than we suspect. But this sounds like an idea worth pursuing.