Escalation and ecological selectively of mineralogy in the Cambrian Radiation of skeletons

Rachel Wood, Andrey Yu. Zhuravlev

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Assembly of the necessary biochemical machinery for biomineralisation long-predated the appearance and rapid diversification of metazoan skeletons in the late Ediacaran to Middle Cambrian (~ 550–520 million years ago (Ma)), and the independent acquisition of skeletons of differing mineralogies suggests a trigger that conferred selective advantage to possession of a skeleton even though this involved physiological cost.

The cost–benefit ratio of biomineralisation has changed over geological time, varying not only with the availability of precursor ions in seawater, but also with evolutionary innovations, as the energy required to produce a skeleton will change as a function of community ecology, particularly with increases in predation pressure.

Here, we demonstrate that during the Cambrian Radiation the choice of biomineral was controlled by an interaction between changing seawater chemistry and evolving ecology. The record also reveals the successive skeletonisation of groups with increasing levels of activity from the Ediacaran to Middle Cambrian. The oldest (~ 550–540 Ma) biomineralised organisms were sessile, and preferentially formed low-cost, simple, skeletons of either high-Mg calcite coincident with high mMg:Ca and/or low pCO2 (aragonite seas), or phosphate during with a well-documented phosphogenic event. More elaborate, but tough and protective, aragonitic skeletons appeared from ~ 540 Ma, dominantly in motile benthos (mostly stem- and crown-group Lophotrochozoa). The first low-Mg calcite skeletons of novel organic-rich composite materials (e.g. trilobites) did not appear until the late early Cambrian (~ 526 Ma), coincident with the first onset of low mMg:Ca and/or high pCO2 (calcite seas). Active, bentho-pelagic predatory groups (vertebrates, chaetognaths, some arthropods) appearing mainly in the late early Cambrian preferentially possessed phosphatic skeletons, which were more stable at the low pH ranges of extracellular fluids associated with intense activity and high-energy ecologies.

These trends suggest that the increasing physiological cost of biomineralisation in successively more demanding metabolisms was offset by the increased chance of survival conferred by a protective skeleton, so indicating a driver of escalating community ecology, in particular an increase in predation pressure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-261
Number of pages13
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Issue number4
Early online date18 Oct 2012
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2012


  • Cambrian
  • skeletons
  • mineralogy
  • escalation
  • Predation
  • Ecology
  • Biomineralisation


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