University of Cambridge > > Department of Earth Sciences Seminars (downtown) > Using ecology to unlock the secrets of early animal evolution

Using ecology to unlock the secrets of early animal evolution

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Oscar Branson.

This is a hybrid event. It will be live in the Tilley Lecture Theatre and broadcast on Zoom (

The sudden appearance of animals in the fossil record, after billions of years of microbial life, is one of the most dramatic events in the history of life on Earth. These oldest known animals are found in the Ediacaran time period (630–541 Ma), just before the Cambrian radiation. Studying Ediacaran evolution is fraught with difficulties due to the unique anatomies of Ediacaran organisms. But we have one potential avenue of attack – the preservation of Ediacaran fossils is exceptional, with thousands of organisms preserved where they lived. To exploit that information we can use a suite of ecological methodologies, normally only used on extant communities.

During this talk I will highlight how this rich data source, combined with cutting edge technological and ecological advances, has transformed our understanding of Ediacaran life. The talk will explain how laser-scanning has transformed our ability to digitally capture hundreds of square meters of Ediacaran bedding planes across the wind-swept coasts of Newfoundland. Over the last four years my team and I have used a micron-resolution laser scanner to capture almost 20,000 fossils in-situ across from Newfoundland, Canada and Charnwood Forest, UK. I will go on to explain how this unprecedented dataset has been used with careful spatial and Bayesian approaches to enable the teasing-apart of Ediacaran eco-evolutionary dynamics, and finally how these Ediacaran organisms paved the way for the rapid Cambrian radiation of animals. This lecture will explain how we were able to discover secrets such as the how some Ediacaran species were dominantly clonal, how Ediacaran communities are highly unusual, rarely competing with each other for food and final how variations in the local habitat may be driving Ediacaran diversification and paving the way for the Cambrian radiation.

This talk is part of the Department of Earth Sciences Seminars (downtown) series.

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