Evolutionary synchrony of Earth’s biosphere and sedimentary-stratigraphic record

Davies, Neil S. and Shillito, Anthony P. and Slater, Ben J. and Liu, Alexander G. and McMahon, William J. (2020) Evolutionary synchrony of Earth’s biosphere and sedimentary-stratigraphic record. Earth-Science Reviews, 201. p. 102979. ISSN 0012-8252 DOI https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2019.102979

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2019.102979


The landscapes and seascapes of Earth’s surface provide the theatre for life, but to what extent did the actors build the stage? The role of life in the long-term shaping of the planetary surface needs to be understood to ascertain whether Earth is singular among known rocky planets, and to frame predictions of future changes to the biosphere. Modern geomorphic observations and modelling have made strides in this respect, but an under-utilized lens through which to interrogate these questions resides in the most complete tangible record of our planetary history: the sedimentary-stratigraphic record (SSR). The characteristics of the SSR have been frequently explained with reference to changes in boundary conditions such as relative sea level, climate, and tectonics. Yet despite the fact that the long-term accrual of the SSR was contemporaneous with the evolution of almost all domains of life on Earth, causal explanations related to biological activity have often been overlooked, particularly within siliciclastic strata. This paper explores evidence for the ways in which organisms have influenced the SSR throughout Earth history and emphasizes that further investigation can help lead towards a mechanistic understanding of how the planetary surface has co-evolved with life. The practicality of discerning life signatures in the SSR is discussed by: 1) distinguishing biologically-dependent versus biologically-influenced sedimentary signatures; 2) emphasizing the importance of determining relative time-length scales of processes and demonstrating how different focal lengths of observation (individual geological outcrops and the complete SSR) can reveal different insights; and 3) promoting an awareness of issues of equifinality and underdetermination that may hinder the recognition of life signatures. Multiple instances of life signatures and their historic range within the SSR are reviewed, with examples covering siliciclastic, biogenic and chemogenic strata, and trigger organisms from across the spectrum of Earth’s extant and ancient life. With this novel perspective, the SSR is recognised as a dynamic archive that expands and complements the fossil and geochemical records that it hosts, rather than simply being a passive repository for them. The SSR is shown to be both the record and the result of long-term evolutionary synchrony between life and planetary surface processes.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: 04 - Palaeobiology
07 - Sedimentary Geology
Divisions: 04 - Palaeobiology
11 - Sedimentary Geology
12 - PhD
Journal or Publication Title: Earth-Science Reviews
Volume: 201
Page Range: p. 102979
Identification Number: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2019.102979
Depositing User: Sarah Humbert
Date Deposited: 06 Mar 2020 17:12
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2020 17:12
URI: http://eprints.esc.cam.ac.uk/id/eprint/4647

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