While oxygen level changes of the model show early fluctuations that the model does not, both models agree on a huge rise in oxygen levels in the late Devonian and Carboniferous, in tandem with collapsing carbon dioxide levels. There is also virtually universal agreement that that situation is due to rainforest development. Rainforests dominated the Carboniferous Period. If the Devonian could be considered terrestrial life’s , then the Carboniferous was its . In the Devonian, plants developed vascular systems, photosynthetic foliage, seeds, roots, and bark, and true forests first appeared. Those basics remain unchanged to this day, but in the Carboniferous there was great diversification within those body plans, and Carboniferous plants formed the foundation for the first complex land-based ecosystems. Ever since the episodes, there has , and the that have prominently shaped Earth’s eon of complex life probably always began with ice sheets at the South Pole, and the current ice age arguably is the only partial exception, but today’s cold period really began about 35 mya, .
It can be helpful at this juncture to grasp the cumulative impact of , inventing , inventing , inventing that made possible, and inventing . Pound-for-pound, the complex organisms that began to dominate Earth’s ecosphere during the Cambrian Period consumed energy about 100,000 times as fast as the Sun produced it. Life on Earth is an incredibly energy-intensive phenomenon, powered by sunlight. In the end, only so much sunlight reaches Earth, and it has always been life’s primary limiting variable. Photosynthesis became more efficient, aerobic respiration was an order-of-magnitude leap in energy efficiency, the oxygenation of the atmosphere and oceans allowed animals to colonize land and ocean sediments and even fly, and life’s colonization of land allowed for a . Life could exploit new niches and even help create them, but the key innovations and pioneering were achieved long ago. If humanity attains the , new niches will arise, even of the , but all other creatures living on Earth have constraints, primarily energy constraints, which produce very real limits. Life on Earth has largely been a for several hundred million years, but the Cambrian Explosion was one of those halcyonic times when animal life had its greatest expansion, not built on the bones of a mass extinction so much as blazing new trails.
In the earliest days of life on Earth, it had to solve the problems of how to reproduce, how to separate itself from its environment, how to acquire raw materials, and how to make the chemical reactions that it needed. But it was confined to those areas where it could take advantage of briefly available potential energy as . The earliest process of skimming energy from energy gradients to power life is called respiration. That earliest respiration is today called because there was virtually no free oxygen in the atmosphere or ocean in those early days. Respiration was life’s first energy cycle. A biological energy cycle begins by harvesting an energy gradient (usually by a proton crossing a membrane or, in photosynthesis, directly capturing photon energy), and the acquired energy powered chemical reactions. The cycle then proceeds in steps, and the reaction products of each step sequentially use a little more energy from the initial capture until the initial energy has been depleted and the cycle’s molecules are returned to their starting point and ready for a fresh influx of energy to repeat the cycle.
As with other early life processes, the first photosynthetic process was different from today’s, but the important result – capturing sunlight to power biological processes – was the same. The scientific consensus today is that a respiration cycle was modified, and a in a was used for capturing sunlight. Intermediate stages have been hypothesized, including the cytochrome using a pigment to create a shield to absorb ultraviolet light, or that the pigment was part of an infrared sensor (for locating volcanic vents). But whatever the case was, the conversion of a respiration system into a photosynthetic system is considered to have only happened , and all photosynthesizers descended from that original innovation.
About 1 bya, began to decline and microbial photosynthesizers , probably due to predation pressure from , which are eukaryotes. Eating stromatolites may reflect the of , although grazing is really just a form of predation. The difference between grazing and predation is the prey. If the prey is an (it fixes its own carbon, by using energy from either or ), it is called grazing, and if the prey got its carbon from eating autotrophs (such creatures are called ), then it is called . There are other categories of life-form consumption, such as and (eating dead organisms), and there are many instances of . For complex life, the symbiosis between the and its cellular host was the most important one ever.
As oxygenic photosynthesis spread through the oceans, everything that could be oxidized by oxygen was, during what is called the (“GOE”), although there may have been multiple dramatic events. The event began as long as three bya and is . The ancient carbon cycle included volcanoes spewing a number of gases into the atmosphere, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen, but carbon dioxide was particularly important. When the continents began forming, carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere via water capturing it, , the carbon became combined into calcium carbonate, and plate tectonics subducted the calcium carbonate in the ocean sediments into the crust, which was again released as carbon dioxide in volcanoes.
About the time that the continents began to grow and began, Earth produced its first known glaciers, between 3.0 and 2.9 bya, although the full extent is unknown. It might have been an ice age or merely some mountain glaciation. The , and numerous competing hypotheses try to explain what produced them. Because the evidence is relatively thin, there is also controversy about the extent of Earth's ice ages. About 2.5 bya, the Sun was probably a little smaller and only about as bright as it is today, and Earth would have been a block of ice if not for the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide and methane that absorbed electromagnetic radiation, particularly in the . But life may well have been involved, particularly oxygenic photosynthesis, and it was almost certainly involved in Earth's first great ice age, which may have been a episode, and some pertinent dynamics follow.
Perhaps a few hundred million years after the first mitochondrion appeared, as the oceanic oxygen content, at least on the surface, increased as a result of oxygenic photosynthesis, those complex cells learned to use oxygen instead of hydrogen. It is difficult to overstate the importance of learning to use oxygen in respiration, called . Before the appearance of aerobic respiration, life generated energy via and . Because oxygen , aerobic respiration generates, on average, about per cycle as fermentation and anaerobic respiration do (although some types of anaerobic respiration can get ). The suite of complex life on Earth today would not have been possible without the energy provided by oxygenic respiration. At minimum, nothing could have flown, and any animal life that might have evolved would have never left the oceans because the atmosphere would not have been breathable. With the advent of aerobic respiration, became possible, as it is several times as efficient as anaerobic respiration and fermentation (about 40% as compared to less than 10%). Today’s food chains of several levels would be constrained to about two in the absence of oxygen. Some scientists have and oxygen and respiration in eukaryote evolution. is controversial.
All animals, , use aerobic respiration today, and early animals (, which are called metazoans today) may have also used aerobic respiration. Before the rise of eukaryotes, the dominant life forms, bacteria and archaea, had many chemical pathways to generate energy as they farmed that potential electron energy from a myriad of substances, such as , and photosynthesizers got their donor electrons from hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen, , , and other chemicals. If there is potential energy in electron bonds, bacteria and archaea will often find ways to harvest it. Many archaean and bacterial species thrive in harsh environments that would quickly kill any complex life, and those hardy organisms are called . In harsh environments, those organisms can go dormant for millennia and , waiting for appropriate conditions (usually related to available energy). In some environments, it can .
The respiration and photosynthesis cycles in complex organisms have been the focus of a great deal of scientific effort, and cyclic diagrams (, ) can provide helpful portrayals of how cycles work. Photosynthesis has several cycles in it, and Nobel Prizes were awarded to the scientists who helped describe the cycles. Chlorophyll molecules , with magnesium in their porphyrin cages, and long tails. Below is a diagram of a chlorophyll molecule. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
During that “,” , , and the rise of grazing and predation had eonic significance. While many critical events in life’s history were unique, one that is not is multicellularity, , and some prokaryotes have multicellular structures, some even with specialized organisms forming colonies. There are , but the primary advantage was size, which would become important in the coming eon of complex life. The rise of complex life might have happened faster than the billion years or so after the basic foundation was set (the complex cell, oxygenic photosynthesis), but geophysical and geochemical processes had their impacts. Perhaps most importantly, the oceans probably did not get oxygenated until just before complex life appeared, as they were sulfidic from 1.8 bya to 700 mya. Atmospheric oxygen is currently thought to have remained at only a few percent at most until about 850 mya, although there are recent arguments that it remained low until only about 420 mya, when large animals began to appear and animals began to colonize land. Just as the atmospheric oxygen content began to rise, then came the biggest ice age in Earth’s history, which probably played a major role in the rise of complex life.