From the University of Exeter:
The evolution of the first animals may have oxygenated the earth’s oceans – contrary to the traditional view that a rise in oxygen triggered their development.
Professor Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter, who led the new study, said: “There had been enough oxygen in ocean surface waters for over 1.5 billion years before the first animals evolved, but the dark depths of the ocean remained devoid of oxygen. We argue that the evolution of the first animals could have played a key role in the widespread oxygenation of the deep oceans. This in turn may have facilitated the evolution of more complex, mobile animals.”
They think this is the sequence of events prior to about 542 mya:
Sponges feed by pumping water through their bodies, filtering out tiny particles of organic matter from the water, and thus helping oxygenate the shelf seas that they live in. This naturally selects for larger phytoplankton – the tiny plants of the ocean – which sink faster, also reducing oxygen demand in the water.
By oxygenating more of the bottom waters of shelf seas, the first filter-feeding animals inadvertently increased the removal of the essential nutrient phosphorus in the ocean. This in turn reduced the productivity of the whole ocean ecosystem, suppressing oxygen demand and thus oxygenating the deep ocean.
A more oxygen-rich ocean created ideal conditions for more mobile animals to evolve, because they have a higher requirement for oxygen. These included the first predatory animals with guts that started to eat one another, marking the beginning of a modern marine biosphere, with the type of food webs we are familiar with today.
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Here’s the abstract:
The Neoproterozoic era (about 1,000 to 542 million years ago) was a time of turbulent environmental change. Large fluctuations in the carbon cycle were associated with at least two severe — possible Snowball Earth — glaciations. There were also massive changes in the redox state of the oceans, culminating in the oxygenation of much of the deep oceans. Amid this environmental change, increasingly complex life forms evolved. The traditional view is that a rise in atmospheric oxygen concentrations led to the oxygenation of the ocean, thus triggering the evolution of animals. We argue instead that the evolution of increasingly complex eukaryotes, including the first animals, could have oxygenated the ocean without requiring an increase in atmospheric oxygen. We propose that large eukaryotic particles sank quickly through the water column and reduced the consumption of oxygen in the surface waters. Combined with the advent of benthic filter feeding, this shifted oxygen demand away from the surface to greater depths and into sediments, allowing oxygen to reach deeper waters. The decline in bottom-water anoxia would hinder the release of phosphorus from sediments, potentially triggering a potent positive feedback: phosphorus removal from the ocean reduced global productivity and ocean-wide oxygen demand, resulting in oxygenation of the deep ocean. That, in turn, would have further reinforced eukaryote evolution, phosphorus removal and ocean oxygenation. (paywall)