OpenStax Biology 2e
If the fossils of the Ediacaran and Cryogenian periods are enigmatic, those of the following Cambrian period are far less so, and include body forms similar to those living today. The Cambrian period, occurring between approximately 542–488 million years ago, marks the most rapid evolution of new animal phyla and animal diversity in Earth’s history. The rapid diversification of animals that appeared during this period, including most of the animal phyla in existence today, is often referred to as the Cambrian explosion. Animals resembling echinoderms, mollusks, worms, arthropods, and chordates arose during this period. What may have been a top predator of this period was an arthropod-like creature named Anomalocaris, over a meter long, with compound eyes and spiky tentacles. Obviously, all these Cambrian animals already exhibited complex structures, so their ancestors must have existed much earlier.
One of the most dominant species during the Cambrian period was the trilobite, an arthropod that was among the first animals to exhibit a sense of vision. Trilobites were somewhat similar to modern horseshoe crabs. Thousands of different species have been identified in fossil sediments of the Cambrian period; not a single species survives today.
The cause of the Cambrian explosion is still debated, and in fact, it may be that a number of interacting causes ushered in this incredible explosion of animal diversity. For this reason, there are a number of hypotheses that attempt to answer this question. Environmental changes may have created a more suitable environment for animal life. Examples of these changes include rising atmospheric oxygen levels and large increases in oceanic calcium concentrations that preceded the Cambrian period. Some scientists believe that an expansive, continental shelf with numerous shallow lagoons or pools provided the necessary living space for larger numbers of different types of animals to coexist. There is also support for hypotheses that argue that ecological relationships between species, such as changes in the food web, competition for food and space, and predator-prey relationships, were primed to promote a sudden massive coevolution of species. Yet other hypotheses claim genetic and developmental reasons for the Cambrian explosion. The morphological flexibility and complexity of animal development afforded by the evolution of Hox control genes may have provided the necessary opportunities for increases in possible animal morphologies at the time of the Cambrian period. Hypotheses that attempt to explain why the Cambrian explosion happened must be able to provide valid reasons for the massive animal diversification, as well as explain why it happened when it did. There is evidence that both supports and refutes each of the hypotheses described above, and the answer may very well be a combination of these and other theories.
However, unresolved questions about the animal diversification that took place during the Cambrian period remain. For example, we do not understand how the evolution of so many species occurred in such a short period of time. Was there really an “explosion” of life at this particular time? Some scientists question the validity of this idea, because there is increasing evidence to suggest that more animal life existed prior to the Cambrian period and that other similar species’ so-called explosions (or radiations) occurred later in history as well. Furthermore, the vast diversification of animal species that appears to have begun during the Cambrian period continued well into the following Ordovician period. Despite some of these arguments, most scientists agree that the Cambrian period marked a time of impressively rapid animal evolution and diversification of body forms that is unmatched for any other time period.
Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e