Brief oxygenation events in locally anoxic oceans during the Cambrian solves the animal breathing paradox

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Oxygen is a prerequisite for all large and motile animals. It is a puzzling paradox that fossils of benthic animals are often found in black shales with geochemical evidence for deposition in marine environments with anoxic and sulfidic bottom waters. It is debated whether the geochemical proxies are unreliable, affected by diagenesis, or whether the fossils are transported from afar or perhaps were not benthic. Here, we improved the stratigraphic resolution of marine anoxia records 100–1000 fold using core-scanning X-Ray Fluorescence and established a centennial resolution record of oxygen availability at the seafloor in an epicontinental sea that existed ~501–494 million years ago. The study reveals that anoxic bottom-water conditions, often with toxic hydrogen sulfide present, were interrupted by brief oxygenation events of 600–3000 years duration, corresponding to 1–5 mm stratigraphic thickness. Fossil shells occur in some of these oxygenated intervals suggesting that animals invaded when conditions permitted an aerobic life style at the seafloor. Although the fauna evidently comprised opportunistic species adapted to low oxygen environments, these findings reconcile a long-standing debate between paleontologists and geochemists, and shows the potential of ultra-high resolution analyses for reconstructing redox conditions in past oceans.




Dahl, T. W., Siggaard-Andersen, M. L., Schovsbo, N. H., Persson, D. O., Husted, S., Hougård, I. W., … Nielsen, A. T. (2019). Brief oxygenation events in locally anoxic oceans during the Cambrian solves the animal breathing paradox. Scientific Reports, 9(1).

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