We and all other animals wouldn't be here today if our planet didn't have a lot of oxygen in its atmosphere and oceans. But how crucial were high oxygen levels to the transition from simple, single-celled life forms to the complexity we see today? A study by University of California, Berkeley geochemists presents new evidence that high levels of oxygen were not critical to the origin of animals. The researchers found that the transition to a world with an oxygenated deep ocean occurred between 540 and 420 million years ago. They attribute this to an increase in atmospheric O2 to levels comparable to the 21 percent oxygen in the atmosphere today. This inferred rise comes hundreds of millions of years after the origination of animals, which occurred between 700 and 800 million years ago.
"The oxygenation of the deep ocean and our interpretation of this as the result of a rise in atmospheric O2 was a pretty late event in the context of Earth history," said Daniel Stolper, an assistant professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley. "This is significant because it provides new evidence that the origination of early animals, which required O2 for their metabolisms, may have gone on in a world with an atmosphere that had relatively low oxygen levels compared to today." He and postdoctoral fellow Brenhin Keller will report their findings in a paper posted online Jan. 3 in advance of publication in the journal Nature. Keller is also affiliated with the Berkeley Geochronology Center. Oxygen has played a key role in the history of Earth, not only because of its importance for organisms that breathe oxygen, but because of its tendency to react, often violently, with other compounds to, for example, make iron rust, plants burn and natural gas explode. Tracking the concentration of oxygen in the ocean and atmosphere over Earth's 4.5-billion-year history, however, isn't easy. For the first 2 billion years, most scientists believe very little oxygen was present in the atmosphere or ocean. But about 2.5-2.3 billion years ago, atmospheric oxygen levels first increased. The geologic effects of this are evident: rocks on land exposed to the atmosphere suddenly began turning red as the iron in them reacted with oxygen to form iron oxides similar to how iron metal rusts.