The Early Cambrian Experiment in Reef-Building by Metazoans

Melissa Hicks & Stephen Rowland (Department of Geoscience, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA)

Paleontological Society short course: "Neoproterozoic-Cambrian Biological Revolutions", Denver, Colorado, USA

6 November 2004


Who are the Neoproterozoic players?

Grotzinger, Walter & Knoll (2000) described Namacalathus.

Wood et al. (2002) described Namapoikia (was large).


Who are the Early Cambrian players?

1) archaeocyathans (and see, also see) (2 single occurrences in the post-Early Cambrian - one in the Middle Cambrian, and one in the Late Cambrian).

2) radiocyaths (similar to receptaculitids; may be an alga, rather than having sponge affinities).

3) corals/corallimorphs (occur within archaeocyathan reefs; most are late Atdabanian to Botomian; make up a low % of reefs - make up 5% of Esmeralda County reefs).


4) calcimicrobes (and see)


There are 2 varieties of archaeocyathans - regulars and irregulars.

Regular archaeocyathans have thin borders with inner and outer walls.

Irregular archaeocyathans have much less symmetry, similar to modern sphinctozoan sponges; have chambers; more common in reef environments.


There are 180 genera of archaeocyathans at their maximum diversity.  Archaeocyathans had an 11 m.y. duration of reef building activity (~same duration as the Paleocene).


Archaeocyathans are traditionally classified as incertae sedis, but they are now considered a class of Phylum Porifera.  Archaeocyathans had aspiculate, originally high-Mg calcite skeletons.  If they’re aspiculate, they can’t be sponges, right?  But, 10-15 years ago, a living aspiculate sponge was found, similar to archaeocyathans.  So, this objection isn’t valid anymore.  Archaeocyathans can be sponges.

Archaeocyathans were put in Kingdom Archaeata for a while (also known as Kingdom Inferibionta).

The uncertain status of archaeocyathans is no longer.  The problem is now resolved.


Scuba allowed observation of a modern aspiculate archaeocyathan-like sponge with chambers, the demosponge Vaceletia crypta (known to be a demosponge from embryological studies).


It is possible to have a sponge without spicules.  Vaceletia is not a descendent of archaeocyathans, however.


Archaeocyathans are a class-level clade of sponges.


Archaeocyathan reefs - occur from the Tommotian to Toyonian.  Reefs greatly vary in size from 1 meter high & wide to 100 meters in width and 50 meters in height.  Archaeocyathan reefs are loaf-shaped to lens-shaped, and range from patch reefs to compound reefs.  The reefs are a consortium of archaeocyathans and calcimicrobes.


Tommotian reefs - 520-521 m.y.; generally small patch reefs (~2 meters wide); examples are in the Anabar-Sinyaya Basin of Siberia; reefs include archaeocyathans and Renalcis.  They formed rigid, cavernous frameworks.  They were the 1st true metazoan reefs.  They were low diversity, but contained all guilds (bafflers, dwellers, constructors).  Tommotian reefs did not contain “simpler” forms.


Atdabanian-Botomian reefs - 511-520 m.y.; known in Morocco, Sardinia, Yukon, Nevada, northern Mexico, China, Australia.  Apex reefs - 180 genera of archaeocyathans (high diversity of reefal & peri-reefal organisms); occurred in low to high energy environments; occurred in shallow to deep shelf.

Dolomite-filled primary cavities have trilobites, echinoderm plates, calcimicrobes, archaeocyathans.

Sinsk (mid-Botomian) and Toyonian regression extinctions hit archaeocyathans.

The Sinsk regression has not yet been seen in Laurentia.  The Sinsk event is recorded in non-bioturbated black shale.


Toyonian reefs - 510-511 m.y.; see a global decline in reef building; Siberian reefs are basically gone; a few scattered reefs around the world; 35 genera of archaeocyathans; 1 or 2 genera of archaeocyathans per reef, commonly; reefs still can be fairly large & complex; high diversity of reef dwellers - hyoliths, Salterella, ostracods, trilobites, corals, brachiopods, chancelloriids, echinoderms; reefs got hit hard by the Toyonian regression (= Hawke Bay event) - a global regression is seen in Morocco, Laurentia, Baltica, South China, Iran; sessile organisms were hit (such as archaeocyathans) & vagrant organisms were hit (such as trilobites).


Why didn’t reefs recover?

There is a 30 to 40 m.y. hiatus in metazoan reef building after this.  See lots of microbialites instead.

See the book Phanerozoic Reef Trends.



1) post-extinction lag - 40 m.y. is longer than it should take to recover, however.

2) photosymbiosis recovery - archaeocyathans probably did have photosymbionts (there’s no evidence, though).

3) reduced grazing - cyanobacteria + microbialites went crazy; the fossil record doesn’t support this hypothesis.

4) nutrient deficiency - there was a lack of much exposed terrestrial rocks on the continents (Example: high transgression on Laurentia),

5) high level of CO2atm. - doubling CO2 gives corals trouble (it changes the pH of the water); the Berner (1997) curve shows CO2atm. was 20 times higher than now.

6) global warming

7) Mg/Ca seawater chemistry - seafloor spreading resulted in increased Ca and decreased Mg levels; therefore, calcite organisms do well and aragonite or high-Mg calcite organisms (such as archaeocyathans) have trouble; this is a time of changeover from aragonite seas to calcite seas.


Audience comment: there are problems with some of these hypotheses - reefs rebound when temperatures and sea level are still high; so, causative factors have to be more complex.



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