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The Cambrian Period

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 17 February 2005

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Cambrian period when there was an explosion of life on Earth. In the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia in Canada, there is an outcrop of limestone shot through with a seam of fine dark shale. A sudden mudslide into shallow water some 550 million years ago means that a startling array of wonderful organisms has been preserved within it. Wide eyed creatures with tentacles below and spines on their backs, things like flattened rolls of carpet with a set of teeth at one end, squids with big lobster-like arms. There are thousands of them and they seem to testify to a time when evolution took a leap and life on this planet suddenly went from being small, simple and fairly rare to being large, complex, numerous and dizzyingly diverse. It happened in the Cambrian Period and it's known as the Cambrian Explosion.

But if this is the great crucible of life on Earth, what could have caused it? How do the strange creatures relate to life as we see it now? And what does the Cambrian Explosion tell us about the nature of evolution?

With Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology, Cambridge University; Richard Corfield, Visiting Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research, Open University; Jane Francis, Professor of Palaeoclimatology, University of Leeds.

  • Further Reading

    Architects of Eternity, Richard Corfield, Headline

    Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould, Vintage.

    The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Simon Conway Morris, Oxford Paperbacks

    The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, Derek E.G. Briggs, Douglas H. Erwin, Frederick J. Collier, Chip Clark (Photographer), Smithsonian Books

    Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, Simon Conway Morris, Cambridge University Press

    In the Blink of an Eye: How Vision Kick-started the Big Bang of Evolution ,Andrew Parker, Free Press.

    Seven Deadly Colours: The Genius of Nature's Palette and How It Eluded Darwin, Andrew Parker, Free Press (May 2005)

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