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Special journal issue looks for elements of complex life

Hundreds of millions of years before there was a chicken or an egg to debate, the first complex animals were evolving in parallel with Earth's rising oxygen levels. But what came first -- animals or oxygen? Oxygen began to accumulate in the oceans and atmosphere 2.3-2.4 billion years ago during the Great Oxidation Event. By 1.8 million years ago, oxygen levels had fallen to intermediate levels, where they remained stable for another billion years -- dubbed "the boring billion" by scientists. Around 800 million years ago, the levels likely increased again, and the first animals evolved soon after. A new study presents evidence suggesting another rise of oxygen catalyzed innovation in animal life. By studying fossil animals from between 550-560 million years ago, during the so-called Ediacaran era, the research shows that Earth's early animals, which were ocean-dwelling creatures that "breathed" by diffusion, evolved to be larger. This meant a lower fraction of their cells came in contact with the surrounding waters during a period of increased oxygen and became smaller again during a transient decrease. According to one of the study's researchers, "This relationship suggests that a rise in oxygen levels may have provided the environment necessary for the diversification of complex body plans and energetically demanding ecologies."

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