The geologic timescale is marked by significant geologic and biological events, including the origin of Earth about 4.6 billion years ago, the origin of life about 3.5billion years ago, the origin of eukaryotic life-forms (living things that have cells with true nuclei) about 1.5billion years ago, and the origin of animals about 0.6 billion years ago. The last event marks the beginning of the Cambrian period. Animals originated relatively late in the history of Earth-in only the last 10 percent of Earth's history. During a geologically brief 100-million-year period, all modern animal groups (along with other animals that are now extinct) evolved. This rapid origin and diversification of animals is often referred to as "the Cambrian explosion."
Scientists have asked important questions about this explosion for more than a century. Why did it occur so late in the history of Earth? The origin of multicellular forms of life seems a relatively simple step compared to the origin of life itself. Why does the fossil record not document the series of evolutionary changes during the evolution of animals? Why did animal life evolve so quickly? Paleontologists continue to search the fossil record for answers to these questions.
One interpretation regarding the absence of fossils during this important 100-million-year period is that early animals were soft bodied and simply did not fossilize. Fossilization of soft-bodied animals is less likely than fossilization of hard-bodied animals, but it does occur. Conditions that promote fossilization of soft-bodied animals include very rapid covering by sediments that create an environment that discourages decomposition. In fact, fossil beds containing soft-bodied animals have been known for many years.
The Ediacara fossil formation, which contains the oldest known animal fossils, consists exclusively of soft-bodied forms. Although named after a site in Australia, the Ediacara formation is worldwide in distribution and dates to Precambrian times. This 700-million-year-old formation gives few clues to the origins of modern animals, however, because paleontologists believe it represents an evolutionary experiment that failed. It contains no ancestors of modern animal groups.
A slightly younger fossil formation containing animal remains is the Tommotian formation, named after a locale in Russia. It dates to the very early Cambrian period, and it also contains only soft-bodied forms. At one time, the animals present in these fossil beds were assigned to various modern animal groups, but most paleontologists now agree that all Tommotian fossils represent unique body forms that arose in the early Cambrian period and disappeared before the end of the period, leaving no descendants in modern animal groups.
A third fossil formation containing both soft-bodied and hard-bodied animals provides evidence of the result of the Cambrian explosion. This fossil formation, called the Burgess Shale, is in Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Shortly after the Cambrian explosion, mud slides rapidly buried thousands of marine animals under conditions that favored fossilization. These fossil beds provide evidence of about 32 modern animal groups, plus about 20 other animal body forms that are so different from any modern animals that they cannot be assigned to any one of the modern groups. These unassignable animals include a large swimming predator called Anomalocaris and a soft-bodied animal called Wiwaxia, which ate detritus or algae. The Burgess Shale formation also has fossils of many extinct representatives of modern animal groups. For example, a well-known Burgess Shale animal called Sidneyia is a representative of a previously unknown group of arthropods (a category of animals that includes insects, spiders, mites, and crabs).
Fossil formations like the Burgess Shale show that evolution cannot always be thought of as a slow progression. The Cambrian explosion involved rapid evolutionary diversification, followed by the extinction of many unique animals. Why was this evolution so rapid? No one really knows. Many zoologists believe that it was because so many ecological niches were available with virtually no competition from existing species. Will zoologists ever know the evolutionary sequences in the Cambrian explosion? Perhaps another ancient fossil bed of soft-bodied animals from 600-million-year-old seas is awaiting discovery.