Plate tectonics and the Cambrian Explosion

A rough-and-ready way of assessing the rate at which silicic magmatic activity has varied through time is to separate out grains of zircon that have accumulated in sedimentary rocks of different ages. Zircon is readily datable using the U-Pb method, if you have access to mass spectrometry. While some of the zircons will date from much older continental crust that was exposed while the sediments originated, sometimes there are grains that formed only a few million years before the sediments accumulated. Those are likely to have crystallized from silica-rich volcanic rocks above subduction zones where ocean-floor has been driven beneath continental crust; i.e. at continental volcanic arcs. Such young zircons therefore help assess the tectonic conditions close to sedimentary basins. The potential of detrital zircon geochronology was first suggested to me by Dr M.V.N. Murthy of the Geological Survey of India in 1978, long before anyone could aspire to mass zircon dating. M.V.N. had by then amassed kilograms of zircon grains from every imaginable source in India, and may have been the first geologist to realise their potential. It has become a lot quicker and cheaper in the last two decades, thanks to methods of dating single zircon grains both precisely and accurately and M.V.N.’s prescient suggestion has been borne out globally.

Optical microscope photograph; the length of t...
A detrital zircon grain about 0.25 mm long. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Results for the late Precambrian to early Palaeozoic have recently been compiled (McKenzie, N.R. et al. 2014. Plate tectonic influences on Neoproterozoic-early Paleozoic climate and animal evolution. Geology, online publication doi:10.1130/G34962.1). One of the striking correlations is between the abundance of ‘young’ zircons relative to Cambrian sedimentary deposition and the pace of diversification of animal faunas during the Cambrian.  During the Cambrian Period there may have been far more continental-margin arc volcanism than in the preceding late Neoproterozoic or later in the early Palaeozoic. That would match with evidence for the Cambrian atmosphere having reached the greatest CO2 concentration of Phanerozoic times and the fact that the Gondwana supercontinent (comprising the present southern continents plus India) was assembled at that time by collision of several Precambrian continental masses. Global temperatures must have been rising.

Reconstruction of Earth 550 Ma ago showing the...
Earth at abround the start of the Cambrian showing the cratons that collided to form Gondwana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rapid emergence of all the major animal groups by the middle Cambrian – the Cambrian Explosion – took place during and despite climatic warming. Environmental stress, perhaps increased calcium and bicarbonate ions in sea water as a result of acid conditions, may have forced animals to develop means of getting both ions out of their cells to form carbonate skeletons: the Cambrian Explosion really marks the first appearance of shelly faunas and a good chance of fossilisation. Yet at the peak of volcanically-induced warming faunal diversity, especially of reef-building animals, fell-off dramatically to create what some palaeobiologsts have termed the Cambrian ‘dead interval’. Marine life really took-off in a big way during the Ordovician while temperatures were falling globally; so much so that the close of the Ordovician was marked by the first major glaciation focused on Gondwana. The zircon record indicates that continental-arc volcanism also declined during the Ordovician, and maybe the Cambrian silicic volcanics were chemically weathered during that Period to remove carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere, along with renewed reef building to bury carbonate fossils.

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