The Cambrian radiation is that key episode in the history of life when a large number of animal phyla appeared in the fossil record over a geologically short period of time. Over the last 20 years, scientific understanding of this radiation has increased significantly. Still, fundamental questions remain about the timing of the radiation and also the tempo of evolution. Trilobites are an excellent group to address these questions because of their rich abundance and diversity. Moreover, their complex morphology makes them readily amenable to phylogenetic analysis, and deducing the nature of macroevolutionary processes during the Cambrian radiation requires an understanding of evolutionary patterns. Phylogenetic biogeographic analysis of Early Cambrian olenellid trilobites, based on a modified version of Brooks Parsimony Analysis, revealed the signature of the breakup of Pannotia, a tectonic event that most evidence suggests is constrained to the interval 600 to 550 Ma. As trilobites are derived metazoans, this suggests the phylogenetic proliferation associated with the Cambrian radiation was underway tens of millions of years before the Early Cambrian, although not hundreds of millions of years as some have argued.
Phylogenetic information from Early Cambrian olenellid trilobites was also used in a stochastic approach based on two continuous time models to test the hypothesis that rates of speciation were unusually high during the Cambrian radiation. No statistical evidence was found to support this hypothesis. Instead, rates of evolution during the Cambrian radiation, at least those pertaining to speciation, were comparable to those that have occurred during other times of adaptive or taxic radiation throughout the history of life.