The cambrian evolutionary 'explosion' recalibrated

Richard A. Fortey, Derek E.G. Briggs, Matthew A. Wills

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

80 Citations (SciVal)


The sudden appearance in the fossil record of the major animal phyla apparently records a phase of unparalleled, rapid evolution at the base of the Cambrian period, 545 Myr ago. This has become known as the Cambrian evolutionary 'explosion', and has fuelled speculation about unique evolutionary processes operating at that time. The acceptance of the palaeontological evidence as a true reflection of the evolutionary narrative has been criticised in two ways: from a reappraisal of the phylogenetic relationships of the early fossils, and from predictions of molecular divergence times, based on six appropriate metazoan genes. Phylogenetic analysis of the arthropods implies an earlier, Precambrian history for most clades, and hence an extensive period of cladogenesis unrecorded by fossils. A similar argument can be applied to molluscs, lophophorates and deuterostomes. Molecular evidence implies divergence between clades to at least 1000 Myr ago. The apparent paradox between the sudden appearance of recognisable metazoans and their extended evolutionary history might be explained by a sudden Cambrian increase in body size, which was accompanied by skeletisation. A new paradigm suggests that the 'explosion' in the record may have been decoupled from the evolutionary innovation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)429-434
Number of pages6
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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