Cole, Devon B.; Daniel B. Mills; Douglas H. Erwin; Erik A. Sperling; Susannah M. Porter; Christopher T. Reinhard and Noah J. Planavsky
Few topics in geobiology have been as extensively debated as the role of Earth's oxygenation in controlling when and why animals emerged and diversified. All currently described animals require oxygen for at least a portion of their life cycle. Therefore, the transition to an oxygenated planet was a prerequisite for the emergence of animals. Yet, our understanding of Earth's oxygenation and the environmental requirements of animal habitability and ecological success is currently limited; estimates for the timing of the appearance of environments sufficiently oxygenated to support ecologically stable populations of animals span a wide range, from billions of years to only a few million years before animals appear in the fossil record. In this light, the extent to which oxygen played an important role in controlling when animals appeared remains a topic of debate. When animals originated and when they diversified are separate questions, meaning either one or both of these phenomena could have been decoupled from oxygenation. Here, we present views from across this interpretive spectrum-in a point-counterpoint format-regarding crucial aspects of the potential links between animals and surface oxygen levels. We highlight areas where the standard discourse on this topic requires a change of course and note that several traditional arguments in this "life versus environment" debate are poorly founded. We also identify a clear need for basic research across a range of fields to disentangle the relationships between oxygen availability and emergence and diversification of animal life.