Geochemistry and the Ediacaran animals

Hopefully, readers will be fairly familiar with the sudden appearance of the Ediacaran fauna – the earliest abundant, large animals – at the start of the eponymous Period of the Neoproterozoic around 635 Ma. If not, use the Search Earth-logs box in the side bar to find extensive coverage since the start of the 21st century. A June 2019 Earth-logs review of the general geochemical background to the Ediacaran Period can be found here. Ten years ago I covered the possible role of the element phosphorus (P) – the main topic here – in the appearance of metazoans (see: Phosphorus, Snowball Earth and origin of metazoans – November 2010).

One of the major changes in marine sedimentation seen during the Ediacaran was a rapid increase in the deposition on the ocean floor of large bodies of P-rich rock (phosphorite), on which a recent paper focuses (Laakso, T.A. et al. 2020. Ediacaran reorganization of the marine phosphorus cycle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, p. 11961-11967; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1916738117). It has been estimated that on million-year time scales phosphorites remove only a tiny amount of the phosphorus carried into the oceans by rivers. So, conversely, an increase in deposition of marine P-rich sediment would have little effect on the overall availability of this essential nutrient from the oceans. The Ediacaran boost in phosphorites suggests a connection between them and the arrival of totally new ecosystems: the global P-cycle must somehow have changed. This isn’t the only change in Neoproterozoic biogeochemistry. Thomas Laakso and colleagues note signs of slightly increased ocean oxygenation from changes in sediment trace-element concentrations, a major increase in shallow-water evaporites dominated by calcium sulfate (gypsum) and changes in the relative proportions of different isotopes of sulfur.

Because all marine cycles, both geochemical and those involving life, are interwoven, the authors suggest that changes in the fate of dead organic matter may have created the phosphorus paradox. Phosphorus is the fifth most abundant element in all organisms after carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, followed by sulfur (CHNOPS), P being a major nutrient that limits the sheer bulk of marine life. Perhaps changes to dead organic matter beneath the ocean floor released its phosphorus content, roughly in the manner that composting garden waste releases nutrients back to the soil. Two chemical mechanisms can do this in the deep ocean: a greater supply of sinking organic matter – essentially electron donors – and of oxidants that are electron acceptors. In ocean-floor sediments organic matter can be altered to release phosphorus bonded in organic molecules into pore water and then to the body of the oceans to rise in upwellings to the near surface where photosynthesis operates to create the base of the ecological food chain.

Caption The Gondwana supercontinent that accumulated during the Neoproterozoic to dominate the Earth at the time of the Ediacaran (credit: Fama Clamosa, at Wikimedia Commons)

There is little sign of much increase in deep-ocean oxygen until hundreds of million years after the Ediacaran. It is likely, therefore, that increased availability of oxidant sulfate ions (SO42-) in ocean water and their reduction to sulfides in deep sediment chemically reconstituted the accumulating dead organic matter to release P far more rapidly than before. This is supported by the increase in CaSO4 evaporites in the Ediacaran shallows. So, where did the sulfate come from? Compressional tectonics during the Neoproterozoic Era were at a maximum, particularly in Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica, as drifting continental fragments derived from the break-up of the earlier Rodinia supercontinent began to collide. This culminated during the Ediacaran around 550 Ma ago with assembly of the Gondwana supercontinent. Huge tracts of it were new mountain belts whose rapid erosion and chemical weathering would have released plenty of sulfate from the breakdown of common sulfide minerals.

So the biological revolution and a more productive biosphere that are reflected in the Ediacaran fauna ultimately may have stemmed from inorganic tectonic changes on a global scale

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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