This series of posts is intended as a basic introduction to the science of evolution for non-specialists. You can see the introduction to this series here. In this post we introduce the Cambrian diversification and discuss how the step-by-step origin of modern-day “body plans” makes testable predictions about patterns in the fossil record.
The Cambrian “Explosion”
In the last post in this series, we discussed the evidence for two ancient endosymbiosis events (leading to mitochondria and chloroplasts) that had a profound impact on the subsequent evolution of eukaryotic diversity. A second event that would profoundly shape the future of animal life on earth was the dramatic diversification of animal groups during the Cambrian, a period stretching from 542 million years ago until 488 million years ago.
What is especially intriguing about the Cambrian period is that it represents the first fossil record for many animal groups that bear a discernible resemblance to animals that still exist today. “Discernible” of course does not mean that what we see in the Cambrian is familiar – Cambrian fauna are markedly different from present-day organisms – but rather the first appearance of traits in the fossil record that we recognize as characteristic of groups of related organisms we observe today. In other words, certain traits we observe in the Cambrian are familiar, though the combination of traits we observe in Cambrian animals is often different from those seen in modern groups. Nonetheless, there is an interest in determining when the groups we see in the present first arose – the first “arthropods,” or “vertebrates,” for example.
If you’re wondering if this introduces something of a “present-day bias” to studying the fossil record, you’re correct – effectively, scientists are using the characteristics of present dayorganisms to attempt to place extinct organisms into groups of relatedness. Before we see how this plays out in studies of the Cambrian, however, we’ll have to explore a few deeper concepts about phylogenies than we have examined thus far.
Evolution and taxonomy
Biologists have been trying to do taxonomy – i.e. group organisms into logical categories – since the time of Linnaeus in the 1700s. Given the explanatory power of evolutionary theory and its current place as a foundational theory in biology, this practice now attempts to group organisms by their evolutionary relatedness. In this approach, the most logical classifications are said to be monophyletic – a technical term that simply means consisting of a common ancestral population and all of its descendant species. An easy way to recognize a monophyletic group is to imagine a phylogeny as a mobile – a monophyletic group can be “snipped off” the mobile with only one cut. Any other type of grouping would require two or more cuts to be made. For example, for the following phylogeny, a grouping of A, B and C is monophyletic, but a grouping of B, C, and D is not:
Using monophyletic groups as the basis for taxonomy comes with challenges, however. One challenge arises when we apply the natural tendency for using combinations of traits found in present-day organisms as the basis for classifying all organisms throughout evolutionary history. Let’s work through an example to see what the issues are.
Will the first “real” arthropod please stand up?
Arthropods are a highly diverse and successful group of organisms that include present-day insects, crustaceans and arachnids (i.e. spiders and scorpions), among others. The evidence also points to arthropods being a monophyletic group. All living arthropods have a suite of defining characteristics such as a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton), specialized body segments, and specialized appendages. While these characteristics are useful for defining modern arthropods, these criteria become less useful as we travel back through the evolutionary history of arthropods. The reason is simple – from an evolutionary point of view, one would not expect these different traits to arise as a unit in one fell swoop. Rather, one would expect that these traits would arise over time in the lineage leading to modern day arthropods. If so, and if populations were diverging away from the arthropod lineage to form species as these traits were being acquired, we would expect to find species in the fossil record that do not have the full suite of “arthropod” characteristics, but only some:
For example, based on the above phylogeny we might expect to find two groups of “arthropod-like” organisms in the fossil record: species that have only (1) of the three traits (specialized appendages only), as well as a second group (2) with specialized appendages and segments. If such species (or groups of species) existed, it would simultaneously provide information on how the characteristic suite of arthropod features was acquired over time, and blur the distinction between arthropods and other forms of life. Indeed, these species would represent “transitional forms” in the sense that they have intermediate sets of characteristic features that indicate the steps the arthropod lineage took to achieve the “modern” suite of characteristics.
In other words, the taxonomic group “arthropods” is somewhat of an arbitrary classification, since we are choosing to “cut off” a monophyletic group at a particular location on the phylogeny when it would also be just as appropriate to cut if off at a different location further back in time and include more species (or later in its history, and include less).
While understanding the evolutionary history of a monophyletic group does not lend itself to black-and-white, either/or types of taxonomic classification, it is very useful for determining how complex body plans arose in a step-by-step fashion. In our next post, we’ll explore this idea further by examining some Cambrian animals in more detail.