Dawn of life

18 05 2015
Looking east toward the northern Flinders Ranges from Ediacara Conservation Park. © CJA Bradshaw

Looking east toward the northern Flinders Ranges from Ediacara Conservation Park. © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve had one of the most mind-blowing weeks of scientific discovery in my career, and it’s not even about a subject from within my field.

As some of you might know, I’ve been getting more and more interested in palaeo-ecology over the past few years. I’m fascinated by the challenge of reconstructing past communities and understanding how and why they changed. It’s a natural progression for someone interested in modern extinction dynamics.

Most of my recent interests have focussed on palaeo-communities of the Late Quaternary, and mainly in the range of 100 thousand years ago to the present. We’ve started publishing a few things in this area, and I can confirm that they’ll be plenty more to come in the following months and years. Despite plenty more to do in the youngest of palaeo-communities, I’ve now been bitten by the deep-time bug.

The giant Dickinsonia rex - a flat, worm-like discoid animal. © D. García-Bellido

The giant Dickinsonia rex – a flat, worm-like discoid animal. © D. García-Bellido

When I write ‘deep time’, I bloody well mean it: back to 580 million years, to be accurate. This is the time before the great Cambrian explosion of life popularised by the late Stephen Jay Gould in his brilliant book, Wonderful Life1,2. I’m talking about the Ediacaran period from 635-541 million years ago.

I’ve lived in South Australia now for over seven years, but it was only in the last few that I realised the Ediacaran was named after the Ediacara Hills in the northern Flinders Ranges some 650 km north of Adelaide where I live, and it wasn’t until last week that I had the extremely gratifying privilege of visiting the region with some of the world’s top Ediacaran specialists. If you have even the remotest interest in geological time and the origin of life on Earth, you should make a pilgrimage to the Flinders Ranges at some point before you die.

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生态学 = ‘Ecology’ in China

13 05 2011

I’m just heading home after a very inspiring workshop organised by Fangliang He at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China (I’m writing this from the Qantas Club in the Hong Kong airport).

Before I proceed to regale you with the salient details of the ‘International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology‘, I am compelled to state publicly that I offer my sincerest condolences to Fangliang and his family; unfortunately Fangliang’s brother passed away while we were at the workshop and so Fangliang wasn’t able to spend much time reaping the fruits of his organisational labour. If you know Fangliang, please send him a supporting email.

That sad note aside, I am delighted to say that the workshop was compelling, challenging and also rather fortuitous. I was one of many overseas invitees, and I must say that I was at times overwhelmed by the size of the brains they managed to pack into the auditorium. Many colleagues I didn’t know attended, and I hope that many will become collaborators. The international invitees were: Read the rest of this entry »





Life and death on Earth: the Cronus hypothesis

13 10 2009
Cronus

Cronus

Bit of a strange one for you today, but here’s a post I hope you’ll enjoy.

My colleague, Barry Brook, and I recently published a paper in the very new and perhaps controversial online journal , the Journal of Cosmology. Cosmology? According to the journal, ‘cosmology’ is:

“the study and understanding of existence in its totality, encompassing the infinite and eternal, and the origins and evolution of the cosmos, galaxies, stars, planets, earth, life, woman and man”.

The journal publishes papers dealing with ‘cosmology’ and is a vehicle for those who wish to publish on subjects devoted to the study of existence in its totality.

Ok. Quite an aim.

Our paper is part of the November (second ever) issue of the journal entitled Asteroids, Meteors, Comets, Climate and Mass Extinctions, and because we were the first to submit, we managed to secure the first paper in the issue.

Our paper, entitled The Cronus hypothesis – extinction as a necessary and dynamic balance to evolutionary diversification, introduces a new idea in the quest to find that perfect analogy for understanding the mechanisms dictating how life on our planet has waxed and waned over the billions of years since it first appeared.

Gaia

Gaia

In the 1960s, James Lovelock conceived the novel idea of Gaia – that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organism where life itself interacts with the physical environment to maintain conditions favourable for life (Gaia was the ancient Greeks’ Earth mother goddess). Embraced, contested, denounced and recently re-invigorated, the idea has evolved substantially since it first appeared. More recently (this year, in fact), Peter Ward countered the Gaia hypothesis with his own Greek metaphor – the Medea hypothesis. Essentially this view holds that life instead ‘seeks’ to destroy itself in an anti-Gaia manner (Medea was the siblicidal wife of Jason of the Argonauts). Ward described his Medea hypothesis as “Gaia’s evil twin”.

One can marvel at the incredible diversity of life on Earth (e.g., conservatively, > 4 million protists, 16600 protozoa, 75000-300000 helminth parasites, 1.5 million fungi, 320000 plants, 4-6 million arthropods, > 6500 amphibians, 10000 birds and > 5000 mammals) and wonder that there might be something in the ‘life makes it easier for life’ idea underlying Gaia. However, when one considers that over 99 % of all species that have ever existed are today extinct, then a Medea perspective might dominate.

Medea

Medea

Enter Cronus. Here we posit a new way of looking at the tumultuous history of life and death on Earth that effectively relegates Gaia and Medea to opposite ends of a spectrum. Cronus (patricidal son of Gaia overthrown by his own son, Zeus, and banished to Hades) treats speciation and extinction as birth and death in a ‘metapopulation’ of species assemblages split into biogeographic realms. Catastrophic extinction events can be brought about via species engineering their surroundings by passively modifying the delicate balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane – indeed, humans might be the next species to fall victim to our own Medean tendencies. But extinction opens up new niches that eventually elicit speciation, and under conditions of relative environmental stability, specialists evolve because they are (at least temporarily) competitive under those conditions. When conditions change again, extinction ensues because not all can adapt quickly enough. Just as all individuals born in a population must eventually die, extinction is a necessary termination.

We think the Cronus metaphor has a lot of advantages over Gaia and Medea. The notion of a community of species as a population of selfish individuals retains the Darwinian view of contestation; self-regulation in Cronus occurs naturally as a result of extinction modifying the course of future evolution. Cronus also makes existing mathematical tools developed for metapopulation theory amenable to broader lines of inquiry.

For example, species as individuals with particular ‘mortality’ (extinction) rates, and lineages with particular ‘birth’ (speciation) rates, could interact and disperse among ‘habitats’ (biogeographical realms). ‘Density’ feedback could be represented as competitive exclusion or symbioses. As species dwindle, feedbacks such as reduced community resilience that further exacerbate extinction risk (Medea-like phase), and stochastic fluctuation around a ‘carrying capacity’ (niche saturation) arising when environmental conditions are relatively stable is the Gaia-like phase. Our Cronus framework is also scale-invariant – it could be applied to microbial diversity on another organism right up to inter-planetary exchange of life (panspermia).

What’s the relevance to conservation? We’re struggling to prevent extinction, so understanding how it works is an essential first step. Without the realisation that extinction is necessary (albeit, at rates preferably slower than they are currently), we cannot properly implement conservation triage, i.e., where do we invest in conservation and why?

We had fun with this, and I hope you enjoy it too.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgBradshaw, C.J.A., & Brook, B.W. (2009). The Cronus Hypothesis – extinction as a necessary and dynamic balance to evolutionary diversification Journal of Cosmology, 2, 201-209 Other: http://journalofcosmology.com/Extinction100.html

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