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Body Size Evolution in Marine Animals

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Understanding the evolution of body size in marine animals is one of the main research goals of the Paleobiology Lab and the History of Life Internship Program. We are working to compile as much information as we can on the sizes of marine fossils in order to gain a global picture of size evolution over the past 540 million years.

Shell Fossils
Scallops and inarticulate brachiopods of the Miocene-aged Monterey Formation near Greenfield, California.

Intern Research Projects Presented at the 2014 AGU Meeting

Body Size Preference of Marine Animals in Relation to Extinction Selectivity

by Sidhant Idgunji and Aditya Sriram

Our project encompasses an extremely specific aspect in relation to the five mass extinctions in geologic history. We asked ourselves whether larger or smaller body sizes would be better suited for surviving a mass extinction. To conduct research for our project, we used the body sizes of 17,172 marine animal genera as our primary data. These animals include echinoderms, arthropods, chordates, mollusks, and brachiopods. These creatures are perfect model organisms in terms of finding data on them because they have an excellent fossil record, and are well documented. We focused on the mean body size of these animals before and after each of the five mass extinctions (end-Ordovician, Late Devonian, end-Permian, end-Triassic, and end-Cretaceous). Our hypothesis was that the average biovolume of animals increased after each of the extinctions, with the mean size being greater after than it was before.

Our size data is from the Ellis & Messina Catalogue of Ostracoda and the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. We obtained stratigraphic range data The Treatise and Sepkoski (2002). In our analyses, we compared the mean size of the different animal genera before and after each extinction event. We further partitioned size change across mass extinction boundaries into three categories: the surviving genera, the extinct genera, and the newly originating genera that came about after the extinction.

According to our analyses, the mean sizes did not change significantly from the genera living during the stages before the extinctions and after the extinctions. From our results, we can assume that there were not enough major increases in the overall volume of the organisms to warrant a definite conclusion that extinctions lead to larger body sizes. Further support for our findings came from the T-tests in our R code. Only the Cretaceous period showed true evidence for size changing because of the extinction; in this case, the mean size decreased. T-tests for the Cretaceous comparisons showed that mean size decreased across the extinction boundary. This was due to the fact that new originating genera were smaller than the genera that survived. Our results show that there is variability in the relationship between body size and extinction selectivity in various mass extinctions.

Intern Research Projects Presented at the 2015 AGU Meeting

Observing Evolutionary Entropy in Relation to Body Size Over Time

by Sidhant Idgunji and Hefan Zhang

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, according to Clausius, states that entropy will always increase in the universe, meaning systems will break down and become simple and chaotic. However, this is seemingly contradicted by the existence of living organisms, which can have highly complex and organized systems. Furthermore, there is a greater contradiction in the theory of evolution, which sees organisms growing larger and becoming more complex over time. Our research project revolved around whether organisms actually became more complex over time, and correlating these findings with the body size of these organisms.

We analyzed the relationship between body size and cell types of five different marine phyla: arthropods, brachiopods, chordates, echinoderms, and mollusks. We attempted to find a relation between the biovolume of these different phyla and the number of specialized cell types that they had, which is a common measure of biocomplexity. In addition, we looked at the metabolic intensity, which is the mass-specific rate of energy processing applied to an organism’s size, because it is also correlated to genetic complexity. Using R programming, we tested for correlations between these factors.

After applying a Pearson correlation test, we discovered a generally positive correlation between the body sizes, number of cell types, and metabolic intensities of these phyla. However, one exception is that there is a negative correlation between the body size and metabolic intensity of echinoderms. Overall, we can see that marine organisms tend to evolve larger and more complex over time, and that is a very interesting find. Our discovery yielded many research questions and problems that we would like to solve, such as how the environment is thermodynamically affected by these organisms.

Oxygen no longer plays a major role in Body Size Evolution

by Hrithik Datta and William Sachson

When observing the long-term relationship between atmospheric oxygen and the maximum size in organisms across the Geozoic (~3.8 Ga - present), it appears that as oxygen increases, organism size grows. However, during the Phanerozoic (541 Ma - Present) oxygen levels varied, so we set out to test the hypothesis that oxygen levels drive patterns marine animal body size evolution. Expected decreases in maximum size due to a lack of oxygen do not occur, and instead, body size continues to increase regardless. In the oxygen data, a relatively low atmospheric oxygen percentage can support increasing body size, so our research tries to determine whether lifestyle affects body size in marine organisms. The genera in the data set were organized based on their tiering, motility, and feeding, such as a pelagic, fully-motile, predator. When organisms fill a certain ecological niche to take advantage of resources, they will have certain life modes, rather than randomly selected traits. For example, even in terrestrial environments, large animals have to constantly feed themselves to support their expensive terrestrial lifestyle which involves fairly consistent movement, and the structural support necessary for that movement. Only organisms with access to high energy food sources or large amounts of food can support themselves, and that is before they expend energy elsewhere. Organisms that expend energy frugally when active or have slower metabolisms in comparison to body size have a more efficient lifestyle and are generally able to grow larger, while those who have higher energy demands like predators are limited to comparatively smaller sizes. Therefore, in respect to the fossil record and modern measurements of animals, the metabolism and lifestyle of an organism dictate its body size in general. With this further clarification on the patterns of evolution, it will be easier to observe and understand the reasons for the ecological traits of organisms today.

The Effect of Abiotic Factors on Marine Animal Body Size-revised

by Frank Wang, Weber Wong

While there is evidence of a general increase in body size over time, there has been no comprehensive attempt to determine the influence of abiotic factors on body size. Although an increase in maximum body size has been observed during and after the Precambrian oxidation events in the Late Archean and at the onset of the Cambrian, these observations took into account the appearance of eukaryotic life and multicellular life respectively. Using a database of marine animal body sizes spanning the Phanerozoic, we conducted a series of Pearson product-moment correlation tests with igneous rock weathering (Strontium-87: Strontium-86), rate of carbon cycle (δ13C), temperature (δ18O), CO2 concentration, sulfate mineral weathering (δ34S), atmospheric oxygen concentration, and sea level as independent variables, and mean body size as the dependent variable. Our test yielded a correlation coefficient of 0.81 between δ18O and body size, and -0.78 between rCO2 and body size; since δ18O is inversely correlated with temperature, these results indicate that both temperature and CO2 have strong inverse relationships with body size. Atmospheric oxygen yielded a correlation coefficient of 0.09, demonstrating that it ceased to play an influential role in shaping body sizes following the start of the Phanerozoic.