Oxygen as a driver of early arthropod micro-benthos evolution

PLoS One. 2011;6(12):e28183. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028183. Epub 2011 Dec 2.


Background: We examine the physiological and lifestyle adaptations which facilitated the emergence of ostracods as the numerically dominant Phanerozoic bivalve arthropod micro-benthos.

Methodology/principal findings: The PO(2) of modern normoxic seawater is 21 kPa (air-equilibrated water), a level that would cause cellular damage if found in the tissues of ostracods and much other marine fauna. The PO(2) of most aquatic breathers at the cellular level is much lower, between 1 and 3 kPa. Ostracods avoid oxygen toxicity by migrating to waters which are hypoxic, or by developing metabolisms which generate high consumption of O(2). Interrogation of the Cambrian record of bivalve arthropod micro-benthos suggests a strong control on ecosystem evolution exerted by changing seawater O(2) levels. The PO(2) of air-equilibrated Cambrian-seawater is predicted to have varied between 10 and 30 kPa. Three groups of marine shelf-dwelling bivalve arthropods adopted different responses to Cambrian seawater O(2). Bradoriida evolved cardiovascular systems that favoured colonization of oxygenated marine waters. Their biodiversity declined during intervals associated with black shale deposition and marine shelf anoxia and their diversity may also have been curtailed by elevated late Cambrian (Furongian) oxygen-levels that increased the PO(2) gradient between seawater and bradoriid tissues. Phosphatocopida responded to Cambrian anoxia differently, reaching their peak during widespread seabed dysoxia of the SPICE event. They lacked a cardiovascular system and appear to have been adapted to seawater hypoxia. As latest Cambrian marine shelf waters became well oxygenated, phosphatocopids went extinct. Changing seawater oxygen-levels and the demise of much of the seabed bradoriid micro-benthos favoured a third group of arthropod micro-benthos, the ostracods. These animals adopted lifestyles that made them tolerant of changes in seawater O(2). Ostracods became the numerically dominant arthropod micro-benthos of the Phanerozoic.

Conclusions/significance: Our work has implications from an evolutionary context for understanding how oxygen-level in marine ecosystems drives behaviour.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthropods / metabolism
  • Arthropods / physiology*
  • Biodiversity
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Crustacea / metabolism
  • Ecosystem
  • Fossils
  • Oxygen / chemistry
  • Oxygen / physiology*
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Pressure
  • Respiration
  • Seawater
  • Time Factors
  • Water / chemistry


  • Water
  • Oxygen