New research suggests that Cambrian conditions may have done them in.
Rangeomorphs were some of the earliest large organisms on Earth, existing during a time when most other forms of life were microscopic in size. Most rangeomorphs were about 10 centimetres high, although some were up to two metres in height.
These creatures were ocean dwellers which lived during the Ediacaran period, between 635 and 541 million years ago. Their bodies were made up of soft branches, each with many smaller side branches, forming a geometric shape known as a fractal, which can be seen in many familiar branching shapes such as fern leaves and even river networks.
Rangeomorphs were unlike any modern organism, which has made it difficult to determine how they fed, grew or reproduced, and therefore difficult to link them to any particular modern group. However, despite the fact that they looked like plants, evidence points to the fact that rangeomorphs were actually some of the earliest animals.
The researchers proposed that rangeomorphs absorbed nutrients through their body surface directly from sea water. If so, here’s a problem:
“The oceans during the Ediacaran period were more like a weak soup — full of nutrients such as organic carbon, whereas today suspended food particles are swiftly harvested by a myriad of animals,” said co-author Professor Simon Conway Morris.
Starting 541 million years ago, the conditions in the oceans changed quickly with the start of the Cambrian Explosion — a period of rapid evolution when most major animal groups first emerge in the fossil record and competition for nutrients increased dramatically.
This analysis has at least the advantage of making more sense than the claim that rangeomorphs were “a ‘failed experiment’ of evolution.” Quite the opposite:
“These creatures were remarkably well-adapted to their environment, as the oceans at the time were high in nutrients and low in competition,” said Dr Hoyal Cuthill. “Mathematically speaking, they filled their space in a nearly perfect way.”
But then the the space changed. Something like that probably happened to the trilobites too.
Reference: Jennifer F. Hoyal Cuthill and Simon Conway Morris. Fractal branching organizations of Ediacaran rangeomorph fronds reveal a lost Proterozoic body plan. PNAS, August 11, 2014 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408542111
Abstract The branching morphology of Ediacaran rangeomorph fronds has no exact counterpart in other complex macroorganisms. As such, these fossils pose major questions as to growth patterns, functional morphology, modes of feeding, and adaptive optimality. Here, using parametric Lindenmayer systems, a formal model of rangeomorph morphologies reveals a fractal body plan characterized by self-similar, axial, apical, alternate branching. Consequent morphological reconstruction for 11 taxa demonstrates an adaptive radiation based on 3D space-filling strategies. The fractal body plan of rangeomorphs is shown to maximize surface area, consistent with diffusive nutrient uptake from the water column (osmotrophy). The enigmas of rangeomorph morphology, evolution, and extinction are resolved by the realization that they were adaptively optimized for unique ecological and geochemical conditions in the late Proterozoic. Changes in ocean conditions associated with the Cambrian explosion sealed their fate.
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