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What you’ll learn to do: Discuss the evolutionary history of the animal kingdom
Many questions regarding the origins and evolutionary history of the animal kingdom continue to be researched and debated, as new fossil and molecular evidence change prevailing theories. Some of these questions include the following: How long have animals existed on Earth? What were the earliest members of the animal kingdom, and what organism was their common ancestor? While animal diversity increased during the Cambrian period of the Paleozoic era, 530 million years ago, modern fossil evidence suggests that primitive animal species existed much earlier.
18.104.22.168: Introduction to the Evolutionary History of the Animal Kingdom - Biology
The process of evolution produces a pattern of relationships between species. As lineages evolve and split and modifications are inherited, their evolutionary paths diverge. This produces a branching pattern of evolutionary relationships.
By studying inherited species' characteristics and other historical evidence, we can reconstruct evolutionary relationships and represent them on a "family tree," called a phylogeny. The phylogeny you see below represents the basic relationships that tie all life on Earth together.
The tree is supported by many lines of evidence, but it is probably not flawless. Scientists constantly reevaluate hypotheses and compare them to new evidence. As scientists gather even more data, they may revise these particular hypotheses, rearranging some of the branches on the tree. For example, evidence discovered in the last 50 years suggests that birds are dinosaurs, which required adjustment to several "vertebrate twigs."
Briefly describe at least two theories that attempt to explain the cause of the Cambrian explosion.
One theory states that environmental factors led to the Cambrian explosion. For example, the rise in atmospheric oxygen and oceanic calcium levels helped to provide the right environmental conditions to allow such a rapid evolution of new animal phyla. Another theory states that ecological factors such as competitive pressures and predator-prey relationships reached a threshold that supported the rapid animal evolution that took place during the Cambrian period.
How is it that most, if not all, of the extant animal phyla today evolved during the Cambrian period if so many massive extinction events have taken place since then?
It is true that multiple mass extinction events have taken place since the Cambrian period, when most currently existing animal phyla appeared, and the majority of animal species were commonly wiped out during these events. However, a small number of animal species representing each phylum were usually able to survive each extinction event, allowing the phylum to continue to evolve rather than become altogether extinct.