543-490 million years
The Cambrian Period marks the beginning of the Paleozoic Era. This period gets its name from a place in Wales where the first examples of this type of ancient life was found. The period lasted for nearly 53 million years, from about 543 million years ago until 490 million years ago. The Cambrian Period marks an important point in the history of life on earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. This event is sometimes called the "Cambrian Explosion", because of the relatively short time over which this diversity of forms appears. It was once thought that the Cambrian rocks contained the first and oldest fossil animals, but these are now to be found in the earlier Vendian strata. Subdivisions
The chart at right shows the major subdivisions of the Cambrian Period for North America (Laurentia during the Cambrian). International ages (subdivisions) have not been established. The size of the bars does not correlate with the length of time for each age. The oldest unnamed age is 543 to 520 million years ago, while the remaining six ages are from 520 to 490 million years ago, each approximately 5-6 million years long. Tectonics and Paleoclimate
The Cambrian follows the Vendian period, during which time the continents had been joined in a single supercontinent called Rodinia (from the Russian word for "homeland", rodina). As the Cambrian began, Rodinia began to fragment into smaller continents, which did not always correspond to the ones we see today. Green represents land above water at this time, red indicates mountains, light blue indicates shallow seas of the continental shelves, and dark blue denotes the deep ocean basins. The Cambrian world was bracketed between two ice ages, one during the late Late Proterozoic and the other during the Ordovician. During these ice ages, the decrease in global temperature led to mass extinctions. Cooler conditions eliminated many warm water species, and glaciation lowered global sea level. However, during the Cambrian there was no significant ice formation. None of the continents were located at the poles, and so land temperatures remained mild. In fact, global climate was probably warmer and more unifrom than it is today. With the beginning of the Cambrian at the retreat of Proterozoic ice, the sea level rose significantly. Lowland areas such as Baltica were flooded and much of the world was covered by epeiric seas. This event opened up new habitats where marine invertebrates, such as the trilobites, radiated and flourished. Plants had not yet evolved, and the terrestrial world was therefore devoid of vegetation and inhospitable to life as we know it. Photosynthesis and primary production were the monopoly of bacteria and algal protists that populated the world's shallow seas. Also during the Cambrian, oxygen first mixed into the world's oceans in significant quantity. Although there was plentiful atmospheric oxygen by the opening of the Cambrian, only in the Cambrian did the numbers of oxygen-depleting bacteria reduce in numbers sufficiently to permit the high levels we know today. This made dissolved oxygen available to the diversity of animals, and may have triggered the "Cambrian Explosion". This was when most of the major groups of animals, especially those with hard shells, first appear in the fossil record. Localities
Rocks of Cambrian age are distributed in the Great Basin of the western United States, parts of the northeastern United States, Wales, Scandinavia and the Baltic region, Siberia, and China, among other places. These localities were not where they are now: the position of the continents was very different. It may seem strange to imagine California on...