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Possible links between extreme oxygen perturbations and the Cambrian radiation of animals


The role of oxygen as a driver for early animal evolution is widely debated. During the Cambrian explosion, episodic radiations of major animal phyla occurred coincident with repeated carbon isotope fluctuations. However, the driver of these isotope fluctuations and potential links to environmental oxygenation are unclear. Here we report high-resolution carbon and sulfur isotope data for marine carbonates from the southeastern Siberian Platform that document the canonical explosive phase of the Cambrian radiation from ~524 to ~514 Myr ago. These analyses demonstrate a strong positive covariation between carbonate δ13C and carbonate-associated sulfate δ34S through five isotope cycles. Biogeochemical modelling suggests that this isotopic coupling reflects periodic oscillations in the atmospheric O2 and the extent of shallow-ocean oxygenation. Episodic maxima in the biodiversity of animal phyla directly coincided with these extreme oxygen perturbations. Conversely, the subsequent Botoman–Toyonian animal extinction events (~514 to ~512 Myr ago) coincided with decoupled isotope records that suggest a shrinking marine sulfate reservoir and expanded shallow marine anoxia. We suggest that fluctuations in oxygen availability in the shallow marine realm exerted a primary control on the timing and tempo of biodiversity radiations at a crucial phase in the early history of animal life.

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Fig. 1: Carbonate carbon and carbonate-associated sulfate sulfur isotope records from Cambrian Stage 2 to Stage 4 of sections of the Siberian Aldan and Lena rivers.
Fig. 2: Carbon and sulfur cycle model output.
Fig. 3: Animal diversity, biological events and their correlation to the isotope records and oxygenation pattern across Cambrian Stages 2–4.

Data availability

The authors declare that data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and Supplementary Tables 15.

Code availability

The code used to generate the coupled carbon and sulfur cycle model results is available from the corresponding author on request.


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This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41661134048) and Strategic Priority Research Program (B) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDB18000000 and XDB26000000) to M.Z. and A.Y. NERC (NE/1005978/1 and NE/P013643/1) to G.A.S., University of Leeds Academic Fellowship to B.J.W.M., ERC Consolidator grant 682760 (CONTROLPASTCO2) to P.A.E.PvS. and NERC (NE/N018559/1) to S.W.P. T.H. was supported by University College London Overseas Research Scholarship, China Scholarship Council and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41888101). We acknowledge G. Tarbuck and D. Hughes for assistance in the geochemical analysis. We thank T. W. Dahl, B. S. Wade, R. Newton, C. Yang and L. Yao for valuable discussions. We thank T. Algeo, B. Gill and M. Gomes for constructive comments.

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T.H., M.Z. and G.A.S. conceived the project. G.A.S., P.A.E.PvS., B.J.W.M. and M.Z. supervised the project. M.Z., A.Y. and A.Yu.Z. collected the samples. T.H. and P.M.W. analysed the samples. A.Yu.Z. provided the fossil data. B.J.W.M. and T.H. created the models. All the authors contributed to the data interpretation and the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tianchen He or Maoyan Zhu or Graham A. Shields.

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He, T., Zhu, M., Mills, B.J.W. et al. Possible links between extreme oxygen perturbations and the Cambrian radiation of animals. Nat. Geosci. 12, 468–474 (2019).

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