April 12, 2004

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Contact: Bruce Lieberman, Geology, (785) 864-2741; Joe Meert, University of Florida, (352) 846-2414; Dan Lara, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU geologist finds beginning of animal life earlier than first thought

LAWRENCE -- Conventional thinking suggests animal life on Earth began roughly 543 million years ago and quickly evolved as time moved forward. Meanwhile, the earth was undergoing significant geological changes, as the planet's one large "supercontinent" was breaking apart.

However, new research by geology professors Bruce Lieberman of the University of Kansas and J.G. Meert of the University of Florida sheds additional light on how long it took animal life to evolve in relation to the formation of the earth's continents.

Lieberman, associate professor of geology at KU, and Meert, assistant professor of geology at Florida, will have their research published this week in the London Journal of the Geological Society.

"This was a time of great change for the earth called the Cambrian Explosion," Lieberman said. "Shortly before this time, the global climate was changing back and forth from an ice age to warmer climates. The fossil record basically indicates animal life appeared around this period and rapidly evolved on the planet."

In conducting their research, Lieberman and Meert made three significant discoveries. First, animal life probably was around at least 50 million years before the Cambrian Explosion and what the fossil record indicates.

Second, the rapid animal evolution was helped along by the breakup of the supercontinent as some of the continents we know today formed. The breakup caused populations of animals to become isolated and evolve independently of one another.

Finally, despite one prevailing theory that the supercontinent split apart over a short period of time, Lieberman and Meert's research suggests the giant land mass gradually broke apart over about 80 million years.

For his research, Lieberman studied trilobite fossils, which are ancient ancestors of horseshoe crabs, spiders, scorpions and other similar organisms. To compare the anatomical features of various trilobites, he used computer software also used to analyze DNA. In this way, Lieberman was able to find similarities between trilobites that came from different parts of the supercontinent.

"We also learned where and when these smaller continents formed," Lieberman said. His research suggests that trilobites originated in present-day Siberia when the landmass was located near the equator.

"This is an interesting angle to take," said Meert, who began working with Lieberman after meeting him at a conference at KU in 2001. "There is a lot of controversy about how fast the continents moved. One way to find out is to determine which continents were close to each other."

Meert conducted his research using the magnetic properties of rocks. When rocks are formed, their magnetic minerals align to the earth's magnetic field, allowing Meert to plot the original locations of organisms on a globe. Radiometric dating of radioactive minerals in the rocks also revealed when they were formed. By combining the formation dates with the location dates, Meert deduced the whereabouts of the continents over the ages.

His field research involved examining dozens of rocks from dozens of locations ranging from Norway to Kenya to Madagascar.

Lieberman traveled to Nevada and the Northwest Territories of Canada to study trilobite fossils. He also studied trilobites at various museums in the United States. His portion of the research was funded by more than $120,000 in grants from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.

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