The Cambrian Period (542-488 Million Years Ago)

Prehistoric Life During the Cambrian Period

cambrian period
Pikaia, one of the first proto-vertebrates of the Cambrian period (Nobu Tamura).

Before the Cambrian period, 542 million years ago, life on earth consisted of single-celled bacteria, algae, and only a handful of multicellular animals--but after the Cambrian, multi-celled vertebrate and invertebrate animals dominated the world's oceans. The Cambrian was the first period of the Paleozoic Era (542-250 million years ago), followed by the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian periods; all of these periods, as well as the succeeding Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras, were dominated by the vertebrates that first evolved during the Cambrian.

The Climate and Geography of the Cambrian Period

Not a lot is known about the global climate during the Cambrian period, but the unusually high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (about 15 times those of the present day) imply that the average temperature may have exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit, even near the poles. Eighty-five percent of the earth was covered with water (compared to 70 percent today), most of that area being taken up by the huge Panthalassic and Iapetus oceans; the average temperature of these vast seas may have been in the range of 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of the Cambrian, 488 million years ago, the bulk of the planet's land mass was locked up in the southern continent of Gondwana, which had only recently broken off from the even bigger Pannotia of the preceding Proterozoic Era.

Marine Life During the Cambrian Period

Invertebrates. The major evolutionary event of the Cambrian period was the "Cambrian Explosion," a rapid burst of innovation in the body plans of invertebrate organisms.

("Rapid" in this context means over the course of tens of millions of years, not literally overnight!) For whatever reason, the Cambrian witnessed the appearance of some truly bizarre creatures, including the five-eyed Opabinia, the spiky Hallucigenia, and the three-foot-long Anomalocaris, which was almost certainly the largest animal ever to appear on earth up to that time.

Most of these arthropods left no living descendants, which has fueled speculation about what life in succeeding geologic epochs might have looked like if, say, the alien-looking Wiwaxia was an evolutionary success.

As striking as they were, though, these invertebrates were far from the only multicellular life forms in the earth's oceans. The Cambrian period marked the worldwide spread of the earliest plankton, as well as trilobites, worms, tiny mollusks, and small, shelled protozoans. In fact, the abundance of these organisms is what made the lifestyle of Anomalocaris and its ilk possible; in the way of food chains throughout history, these larger invertebrates spent all their time feasting on the smaller invertebrates in their immediate vicinity.

Vertebrates. You wouldn't have known it to visit the earth's oceans 500 million years ago, but vertebrates, and not invertebrates, were destined to become the dominant animals on the planet, at least in terms of body mass and intelligence. The Cambrian period marked the appearance of the earliest identified proto-vertebrate organisms, including Pikaia (which possessed a flexible "notochord" rather than a true backbone) and the slightly more advanced Myllokunmingia and Haikouichthys.

For all intents and purposes, these three genera count as the very first prehistoric fish, though there's still a chance that earlier candidates may be discovered dating from the late Proterozoic Era.

Plant Life During the Cambrian Period

There is still some controversy about whether any true plants existed as far back as the Cambrian period. If they did, they consisted of microscopic algae and lichens (which don't tend to fossilize well). We do know that macroscopic plants like seaweeds had yet to evolve during the Cambrian period, giving their noticeable absence in the fossil record.

Next: the Ordovician Period