Reasons to Believe

New Insight into the Ecology of the Cambrian Fauna: Evidence for Creation Mounts

A recent report by one of the world’s leading paleontologists, Richard Fortey, provides compelling evidence that chemoautotrophic symbiosis, a complex ecological relationship between sulfur-oxidizing bacteria and advanced, multicellular marine animals, first appeared close to the time of the Cambrian Explosion.1 This discovery adds to the growing weight of evidence for the supernatural introduction of complex animal life on Earth.

The Cambrian “Explosion” is a dramatic event in life’s history taking place around 540 million years ago. Over the course of perhaps less than 2 to 3 million years, nearly every animal phylum (over 70) ever to exist on Earth appeared. Since that time no new animal phyla have been introduced.2-3 Phyla are the categories in the biological classification hierarchy that refer to an organism’s body plan, or architectural design.

In 1986, Simon Conway Morris identified an additional feature of the Cambrian Explosion that has remained troubling for the naturalistic paradigm; namely, that the ecology of the Cambrian fauna resembled that of a modern marine ecology. It includes identifiable predator-prey relationships.4-5 This finding runs counter to what would be expected if the Cambrian “Explosion” were the result of natural processes. Instead of observing a haphazard, loosely-woven ecology, as predicted by the evolutionary paradigm, the Cambrian fauna appear suddenly in the fossil record as a tight-knit ecological community, consistent with a Creation Model for the origin of complex multicellular animals. The new discovery by Richard Fortey of the Natural History Museum in London adds additional support for a fine-tuned, modern Cambrian ecology.

Chemoautotrophic symbiosis is a complex interdependence between advanced marine animals and sulfur-oxidizing bacteria. These bacteria use hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur compounds as an energy source and often employ carbon dioxide as their sole carbon source, converting it into organic nutrients. Sulfur-oxidizing bacteria are found in environments that are low in oxygen and rich in hydrogen sulfide.

A number of multicellular, complex animals also exist in this toxic low oxygen, high sulfur environment through their interactions with sulfur-oxidizing bacteria. These animals feed on the bacteria directly or have modified body-and mouth-parts that allow the cultivation of the bacteria. Also, many of these animals have brood pouches to sequester their young from the toxic milieu until they can establish a symbiotic relationship with the sulfur-oxidizing bacteria.

Based on an understanding of modern-day chemoautotrophic symbiosis, Richard Fortey was able to recognize this type of relationship in the fossil record of Olenids (a family of trilobites) as far back as 505 million years ago, just after the Cambrian “Explosion.”6 These trilobite fossils share morphological features with modern arthropods that rely on chemoautotrophic symbioses and are recovered from deposits low in oxygen and high in sulfide content.

The appearance of this type of complex interrelationship shortly after the Cambrian event is surprising to evolutionists. Substantial anatomical changes (modified mouthparts, gills, body surfaces, reproductive anatomy) must take place all at once for the organism to survive in this toxic environment. Natural processes do not allow for the sudden and highly orchestrated changes necessary for an organism to transition into an environment that demands complex symbiotic relationships for survival. From an evolutionary perspective, this type of transition must happen over exceedingly long periods of time. Reasons To Believe’s Creation Model readily accommodates the discovery of chemoautotrophic symbiosis as far back as 505 million years ago.

Subjects: Cambrian Explosion

Dr. Fazale Rana

In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence—evidence that is being uncovered day after day—for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture. Read more about Dr. Fazale Rana

References:

  1. Richard Fortey, “Olenid Trilobites: The Oldest Known Chemoautotrophic Symbionts?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 97 (2000): 6574-78.
  2. Fazale R. Rana and Hugh Ross, “The Cambrian ‘Explosion’ and Why It Means So Much for Christians” (An Interview with Dr. Paul Chien), Facts for Faith (Quarter 2, 2000): 15-17.
  3. Fazale R. Rana, “Cambrian Flash,” Connections2, no. 1 (2000): 3.
  4. S. Conway Morris, “The Community Structure of the Middle Cambrian Phyllopod Bed (Burgess Shale),” Paleontology 29 (1986): 423-67.
  5. S. J. Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 222-24.
  6. Fortey, 6574-78.