One of the enduring puzzles to Stephen Jay Gould about life on Earth was the cause or causes of the fantastic diversity of animals that exploded in the fossil record starting around 530 Ma—the Cambrian explosion. In this contribution, we first review recent phylogenetic and molecular clock studies that estimate dates for high-level metazoan diversifications, in particular the origin of the major lineages of the bilaterally-symmetrical animals (Bilateria) including cnidarians. We next review possible “internal” triggers for the Cambrian explosion, and argue that pattern formation, those processes that delay the specification of cells and thereby allow for growth, was one major innovation that allowed for the evolution of distinct macroscopic body plans by the end of the Precambrian. Of potential “external” triggers there is no lack of candidates, including snowball earth episodes and a general increase in the oxygenation state of the world's oceans; the former could affect animal evolution by a mass extinction followed by ecological recovery, whereas the latter could affect the evolution of benthic animals through the transfer of reduced carbon from the pelagos to the benthos via fecal pellets. We argue that the most likely cause of the Cambrian explosion was the evolution of macrophagy, which resulted in the evolution of larger body sizes and eventually skeletons in response to increased benthic predation pressures. Benthic predation pressures also resulted in the evolution of mesozooplankton, which irrevocably linked the pelagos with the benthos, effectively establishing the Phanerozoic ocean. Hence, we suggest that the Cambrian explosion was the inevitable outcome of the evolution of macrophagy near the end of the Marinoan glacial interval.
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Vol. 31 • No. sp5