The Earth 640 million years ago during the Marinoan ‘Snowball’ event (credit: Cornell University via Flickr)
Palaeobiologists generally believe that without a significant boost to oxygen levels in the oceans macroscopic eukaryotes, animals in particular, could not have evolved. Although the first signs of a rise in atmospheric oxygen enter the stratigraphic record some 2.4 billion years ago and eukaryote microfossils appeared at around 2 Ga, traces of bulky creatures suddenly show up much later at ~610 Ma with possible fossil bilaterian embryos preserved in 630 Ma old sediments. An intriguing feature of this Ediacaran fauna is that it appeared shortly after one of the Neoproterozoic global glaciations, the Marinoan ‘Snowball’ event: a coincidence or was there some connection? It has looked very like happenstance because few if any signs of a tangible post-Marinoan rise in environmental oxygen have been detected. Perhaps the sluggish two billion-year accumulation of free oxygen simply passed the threshold needed for metazoan metabolism. But there are other, proxy means of assessing the oxidation-reduction balance, one of which depends on trace metals whose chemistry hinges on their variable valency. The balance between soluble iron-2 and iron-3 that readily forms insoluble compounds is a model, although iron itself is so common in sediments that its concentration is not much of a guide. Molybdenum, vanadium and uranium, being quite rare, are more likely to chart subtle changes in the redox conditions under which marine sediments were deposited.
Dickinsonia; a typical Ediacaran animal. Scale in cm (credit: Wikipedia)
Swapan Sahoo of the University of Nevada and colleagues from the USA, China and Canada detected a marked increase in the variability of Mo, V and U content of the basal black shales of the Doushantuo Formation of southern China, which contain the possible eukaryote embryos (Sahoo, S.K and 8 others 2012. Ocean oxygenation in the wake of the Marinoan glaciation. Nature, v. 489, p. 546-549). These rocks occur just above the last member of the Marinoan glacial to post-glacial sedimentary package and are around 632 Ma old. Since the black shales accumulated at depths well below those affected by surface waves that might have permitted local changes in the oxygen content of sea water the geochemistry of their formative environment ought not to have changed if global chemical conditions had been stable: the observed fluctuations may represent secular changes in global redox conditions. The earlier variability settles down to low levels towards the top of the analysed sequence, suggesting stabilised global chemistry.
What this might indicate is quite simple to work out. When the overall chemistry of the oceans is reducing Mo, V and U are more likely to enter sulfides in sediments, thereby forcing down their dissolved concentration in sea water. With a steady supply of those elements, probably by solution from basalt lavas at ocean ridges, sedimentary concentrations should stabilise at high levels in balance with low concentrations in solution. If seawater becomes more oxidising it holds more Mo, V and U in solution and sediment levels decline. So the high concentrations in sediments mark periods of global reducing conditions, whereas low values signal a more oxidising marine environment. Sahoo et al.’s observations suggest that marine geochemistry became unstable immediately after the Marinoan glaciation but settled to a fundamentally more oxidising state than it had been in earlier times, perhaps by tenfold increase in atmospheric oxygen content. So what might have caused this and the attendant potential for animals to get larger in the aftermath of the Snowball Earth event? One possibility is that the long period of glaciers’ grinding down continental crust added nutrients to the oceans. Once warmed and lit by the sun they hosted huge blooms of single-celled phytoplankton whose photosynthesis became an oxygen factory and whose burial in pervasive reducing conditions on the sea bed formed a permanent repository of organic carbon. The outcome an at-first hesitant oxygenation of the planet and then a permanent fixture opening a window of opportunity for the Ediacarans and ultimately life as we know it.
Volvox cyst. Image via Wikipedia
The Neoproterozoic lagerstätte in the Doushantuo Formation in the south of China was until recently thought to be a source of astonishing information about Earth’s earliest animals (See Ancestral animal? in EPN August 2004) that preceded the appearance of those with hard parts at the start of the Phanerozoic. It contains well-preserved fossils that resemble embryos, algae, acritarchs, and small bilaterians. Dated at between 580 to 600 Ma(See Age range of early fossil treasure trove in EPN February 2005), the Doushantuo directly overlies cap carbonates representing the emergence of Earth’s climate from a Snowball epoch represented by a tillite beneath the carbonate sequence. A detailed examination using synchrotron X-ray tomography of the putative animal embryos does show clear signs of cell doubling or palintomy (Huldtgren, T. et al. 2011. Fossilized nucluei and germination structures identify Ediacaran ‘animal embryos’ as encysting protists. Science. V. 334, p. 1696-1699) but also internal cell features most likely to be nuclei, but which have no counterparts in animal embryos. The organisms which the fossils most resemble are indeed eukaryotes, but of a kind separate from animals known as Holozoa. Yet there are striking resemblances with eukaryotes more distant from animals, such as the modern Volvox, a type of alga (Butterfield, N.J. 2011. Terminal developments in Ediacaran embryology. Science. V. 334, p. 1655-1656), that developed from an ancestor further back in time than the separation of metazoan animals from holozoans.
Suilven, a spectacular outlier of Torridonian terrestrial sandstones resting on a buried landscape of Archaean gneisses near Lochinver, Sutherland. Image via Wikipedia
Geologists often assume that the continents were first colonised by plants, insects then vertebrates beginning in the Ordovician Period with preservation of spores very like those of the liverworts, which incidentally can only be removed from gravel driveways by the use of acetic acid, glyphosate, pycloram and flamethrowers having no lasting effect. The most intractable of all organisms found on the land surface today are prokaryotic (nucleus-free cells) cyanobacteria whose biofilms cement desert varnish (see Desert varnish, May 2008 in Subjects: GIS and Remote Sensing). Cyanobacteria have long been suspected to have been the first life forms to adopt a terrestrial habit, and their cells have been discovered in the now-famous Neoproterozoic lagerstätten in the Doushantuo Formation of China (see The earliest lichens, May 2005 in Subjects: Geobiology, palaeontology, and evolution) The oldest un-metamorphosed sediments in Britain, the Torridonian redbeds that form the magnificent scenery of north-western Scotland, now push back the date of the earliest eukaryotic (cells with nuclei) terrestrial life, of which we are one form, half a billion years before the Doushanto cyanobacteria (Strother, P.K. et al. 2011. Earth’s earliest non-marine eukaryotes. Nature, v. 473, p. 505-509). The Torridonian is one of the thickest (~12 km) terrestrial sequences on the planet, and spans a time range of around 200 Ma (1.2 to 1 Ga). It is a repository of almost the entire range of humid continental sedimentary environments: colluvial fan; bajada; alluvial; deltaic and lacustrine build-ups. Grey lake-bed mudstones and phosphate nodules in the Torridonian yield small organic fossils lumped in the sack-term acritarchs. Similar bodies, whose affinities are diverse and generally obscure, have been reported from marine sediments as old as 3.2 Ga. The fascination of those from the Torridonian, other than their terrestrial association, is that some include aggregates of spherical cells with tantalising suggestions of central nuclei and, as a whole assemblage, exhibit a range of morphologies far beyond that of nucleus-free prokaryotes and the signature of cytoskeletal filaments that form a ‘scaffold’ for eukaryote cells. Worth noting is that one of the authors is Martin Brasier of Oxford University, whose meticulous bio-morphological skills in microscopy has made him one of the foremost critics of speculation on Precambrian microfossils (see Doubt cast on earliest bacterial fossils April 2003 in Subjects: Geobiology, palaeontology, and evolution). The authors opine that the ecological diversity of freshwater and land systems, and the physico-chemical stress associated with repeated wetting and desiccation compared with the marine domain may have been instrumental in origination of the Eucarya, which should give the Torridonian a scientific reputation that extends beyond these shores.