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Online exhibits : Geologic time scale
First, a few words about the Precambrian, an informal name for the vast expanse of time prior to the Phanerozoic Eon (which includes the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic Eras). The Earth formed. It then took nearly four thousand million years before the first animals would leave their traces on the planet. This span of time makes up roughly seven-eighths of the Earth's history. During the Precambrian, the most important events in biological history took place. Consider that the Earth formed, life arose, the first tectonic plates arose and began to move, eukaryotic cells evolved, the atmosphere became enriched in oxygen and just before the end of the Precambrian, complex multicellular organisms, including the first animals, evolved.
The Proterozoic Eon
The period of Earth's history that began 2.5 billion years ago and ended 542.0 million years ago is known as the Proterozoic, which is subdivided into three eras: the Paleoproterozoic (2.5 to 1.6 billion years ago), Mesoproterozoic (1.6 to 1 billion years ago), and Neoproterozoic (1 billion to 542.0 million years ago).* Many of the most exciting events in the history of the Earth and of life occurred during the Proterozoic stable continents first appeared and began to accrete, a long process taking about a billion years. Also coming from this time are the first abundant fossils of living organisms, mostly bacteria and archaeans, but by about 1.8 billion years ago eukaryotic cells appear as fossils too.
With the beginning of the Mesoproterozoic comes the first evidence of oxygen build-up in the atmosphere. This global catastrophe spelled doom for many bacterial groups, but made possible the explosion of eukaryotic forms. These included multicellular algae, and toward the end of the Proterozoic, the first animals.
The first traces of life appear nearly 3.5 billion years ago, in the early Archean. However, clearly identifiable fossils remain rare until the late Archean, when stromatolites, layered mounds produced by the growth of microbial mats, become common in the rock record. Stromatolite diversity increased through most of the Proterozoic. Until about one billion years ago, they flourished in shallow waters throughout the world. Their importance for understanding Proterozoic life is tremendous; stromatolites that have been silicified (forming a type of rock known as stromatolitic chert) often preserve exquisite microfossils of the microbes that made them (see two photos, below left).
Stromatolites began to decline in abundance and diversity about 700 million years ago. A popular theory for their decline (though certainly not the only possible explanation) is that herbivorous eukaryotes, perhaps including the first animals, evolved at about this time and began feeding extensively on growing stromatolites. Stromatolites are rare fossils after about 450 million years ago. Today, they are found only in restricted habitats with low levels of grazing, such as the shallow, saline waters of Shark Bay, Australia.
The oldest fossil that may represent a macroscopic organism is about 2.1 billion years old. Several types of fossil that appear to represent simple multicellular forms of life are found by the end of the Paleoproterozoic. These fossils, known as carbon films, are just that: small, dark compressions, most resembling circles, ribbons, or leaves; they are most common and widespread in the Neoproterozoic. Some resemble seaweeds and may represent eukaryotic algae; we know from independent evidence that red algae and green algae appeared in the Proterozoic, probably over one billion years ago.
There are tantalizing hints from trace fossils and molecular biology that animals may have appeared as much as one billion years ago. However, the oldest relatively non-controversial, well-studied animal fossils appear in the last hundred million years of the Proterozoic, just before the Cambrian radiation of taxa. The time from 635 million years ago to 542 million years ago, known as the Ediacaran Period (sometimes called the Vendian), saw the origin and first diversification of soft-bodied organisms (see two photos, above right). The period and the fauna are named after the Ediacara Hills of southern Australia, where the first abundant and diverse fossils of this kind were found.
Ancient global pollution
Where was the oxygen coming from? Cyanobacteria, photosynthetic organisms that produce oxygen as a byproduct, had first appeared 3.5 billion years ago, but became common and widespread in the Proterozoic. Their photosynthetic activity was primarily responsible for the rise in atmospheric oxygen.
Proterozoic fossil localities
Resources and references
* Dates from the International Commission on Stratigraphy's International Stratigraphic Chart, 2009.
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