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Professor Guy Narbonne
Research Chair, Queen's Univesity, Kingston, Canada
This Sprigg Lecture is part of Fossil Fest.
Although microbial fossils extend three and a half billion years backward into the Archean, large recognisable fossils did not appear until just before the Cambrian explosion of life, a fact noted even by Charles Darwin in writing The Origin of Species.
The oldest large and morphologically complex fossils in the world are the Mistaken Point assemblage of Newfoundland in eastern Canada (580-560 million years old). Mistaken Point fossils abruptly appeared coincident with a major rise in atmospheric oxygen and the meltdown of the last of the Proterozoic "snowball" glaciers.
The Mistaken Point fossils represent soft-bodied creatures living on a deep-sea bottom that were killed when they were catastrophically covered by eruptions of volcanic ash, exquisitely preserving them as fossils and forming "census populations" that can be studied using modern techniques in ecology. Most of these fossils are "rangeomorphs", an extinct experiment in fractal life that dominated early stages of animal evolution.
Younger Ediacaran assemblages in Russia, Australia, and Namibia show increasing soft-bodied complexity, including the appearance of bilaterian animals. The Ediacara biota disappeared abruptly 540 million years ago, most likely due to competition and predation from the evolving animals of the Cambrian explosion.
Guy Narbonne received his PhD in paleontology from the University of Ottawa and has been teaching at Queen's University in Canada since 1982. His research is focused on the world's first experiment in large and complex multicellular life, the soft-bodied fossils of the Ediacara biota.
He is the winner of the H.S. Robinson Medal in Precambrian Geology (1994), Queen's University Prize for Excellence in Research (2008), the Billings Medal in Paleontology (2009), and was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Science and the Royal Society of Canada in 2010. He is the recipient of several "Best Paper Awards" for his research, and two of his discoveries were regarded by Discover Magazine as being among the top 100 science discoveries for the year.
His research has been reported in Time Magazine and National Geographic, in radio interviews including ABC's The Science Show, and in television documentaries including First Life with David Attenborough.