Knowing how life worked on Earth 550 million years ago can give perspective on how life evolved on other planets. Geologist and associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Simon Darroch and postdoctoral researcher Brandt Gibson are working to find it.
“On a larger scale, understanding how, when and why complex life evolved on this planet gives us an idea of how likely we are to find complex life elsewhere in the solar system, and what it might look like,” Darroch said. “I honestly can’t think of anything cool to work on.”
Their research shows strange, vase-like creatures (in the genus Ernietta) that lived in the Ediacaran period – about 635 million to 541 million years ago. These organisms lived in marine environments, where fluid dynamics drive the evolution of the organisms that inhabit them.
This work brought two distinct areas of science together – palaeontology and fluid dynamics, which describe the flow of liquids and gases. Darroch said: “Palaeontology is most exciting – and arguably the most successful – when it works in interaction with other disciplines. In this case, it is fluid physics.
Computer models of fluid dynamics affecting communities of organisms indicate that when isolated, larger individuals have better nutrient circulation in their body cavities than smaller individuals. However, when different sizes of individuals live together, the larger ones can create beneficial conditions for smaller ones downstream. This research, conducted under the Evolutionary Studies Initiative, was led by Gibson, which resulted in an article he published Frontiers in Earth Sciences On October 18.
During Gibson’s graduate studies in Darroch’s lab, the two participated in the Blended and Online Learning Design Fellows program. BOLD enables teams of graduate students and faculty to develop online learning materials based on solid course design principles and an understanding of how people learn. “I’m sure some of our discussions about generating these materials helped launch the ideas presented in this research,” Gibson said.
“The same ecological tricks that allow organisms to feed, move and reproduce over and over again have evolved over time, likely because life in moving fluids exerts strong selective pressure. Erneta in particular seem to behave much like some social groups of mussels, especially the family mussels and oysters. “.
“Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the smaller Erneta will be protected from backflow downstream of it, but it also consistently receives stronger cavity recirculation (possibly aiding in suspension feeding),” Gibson said. “Our simulations indicate that these types of ecological dynamics, which are well known in living animals, have also helped build Ediacaran communities of organisms that are completely mysterious to us.”
Darroch praised the lab’s efforts in spearheading this research: “It took talented students like Gibson to really continue this effort, and he has expanded the lab’s horizons ever since.”
Those new horizons are already approaching in the hands of Andre Olaru and Hill Masaki, undergraduates in Biological Sciences and EES, respectively. “Andre and Hill use similar techniques to help understand some other obscure types of Ediacaran taxonomies,” Darroch said. The students were recently awarded travel grants for interns through ESI to present their work at the annual meeting of the Paleontological Society in Oxford, England. In addition to travel funding, students have received grants from the UK’s National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.
“We work with a very talented team at Oxford, and together we have reconstructed entire rooftops of Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Canada. Looking at how stream systems have evolved on a larger scale across the Ediacaran-Cambrian frontier will give us vital clues as to how aspects of biology and ecology are changing. Throughout that time period.”
The Ediacaran dinner party featured plenty of food, proper sanitation, and computer model displays
Brandt M. Gibson et al., Significance of Size and Location within the Erneta Plateau Populations, Frontiers in Earth Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.3389 / feart.2021.749150
Presented by Vanderbilt University
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