Co-evolution of Eukaryotes and Ocean and Atmosphere Oxygenation in the Neoproterozoic and Paleozoic Eras

Friday, 19 December 2014: 9:00 AM
Tim Michael Lenton1, Stuart J Daines1, Benjamin Mills1 and Richard A Boyle2, (1)University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom, (2)University of Southern Denmark, Biology, Odense, Denmark
The nature, timing and cause(s) of the Earth’s second oxygenation event are widely debated. It has been argued that there was a single pronounced rise in atmospheric oxygen toward present levels in the Late Neoproterozoic, which in turn triggered the evolution of animals. Here we suggest a more complex co-evolutionary scenario, with fluctuations in ocean and atmosphere oxygenation in the Late Neoproterozoic and Early Paleozoic caused partly by the evolution of animals, followed by a pronounced rise of atmospheric oxygen to present levels later in the Paleozoic caused by the rise of land plants.

Current geochemical evidence suggests some parts of the deep oceans became oxygenated during the Ediacaran, but there was subsequent de-oxygenation of the ocean during the Cambrian that may have persisted into the Ordovician. Only later in the Paleozoic is there evidence for widespread oxygenation of the deep ocean, together with charcoal indicating atmospheric oxygen had approached present levels.

The limited Neoproterozoic oxygenation of the ocean could be explained by the evolution of filter-feeding sponges removing oxygen demand from the water column and encouraging a shift from cyanobacteria to faster-sinking eukaryotic algae, which transferred oxygen demand to greater depths and into sediments. The resulting oxygenation of shelf bottom waters would have increased phosphorus removal from the ocean thus lowering global productivity and oxygen demand in a positive feedback loop encouraging ocean oxygenation [1].

The subsequent Cambrian de-oxygenation of the ocean could be explained by the evolution of bioturbating animals oxygenating the sediments and thus lowering the C/P burial ratio of organic matter, reducing organic carbon burial and lowering atmospheric oxygen [2].

The later rise of land plants, selectively weathering phosphorus from continental rocks and producing recalcitrant high C/P biomass, increased organic carbon burial and atmospheric oxygen, finally producing a persistent, global oxygenation of the deep ocean [3].

Thus, the Earth’s protracted second oxygenation event culminated in the Paleozoic not the Neoproterozoic.

[1] Lenton et al. (2014) Nature Geoscience 7, 257-265

[2] Boyle et al. (2014) Nature Geoscience 7, 10.1038/NGEO2213

[3] Bergman et al. (2004) Am. J. Sci. 304, 397-437