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THE CAMBRIAN

AFTERMATH OF AN EXPLOSION

Seeing planet Earth from space is something vey few humans ever get the chance to see. The magnificent blue world set on a backdrop of stars around it must be one of the most amazing sights that any set of eyes could ever see, conjuring thoughts of just how small humans are. But imagine watching Earth from space, travelling backwards in time. Those eyes would watch their familiar home below change in so many ways. The shape of places shifting, tectonic plates moving and changing shape, a jigsaw of land fitting together before coming apart again and repeating as time passes. Huge mountain ranges would disappear and others reappear from death, ancient seas once gone replacing the deserts that inhabitant the same place in our human world. The very colour of Earth would change, from brilliant white ice ages, to wide green open grasslands to forests to deserts, a changing spectrum of colour that would make earth resemble some ancient animal displaying itself to your eyes. Go back to 530 million years and the world beneath you is not the same as the one you left. This is not a human world. It's a world ruled by what came before…

Setting foot on this world would be alien to a human. There's little here to remind you that this area will become British Columbia. It's not just a world alien to humans its also deadly. The land is barren, an expanse of brown, baked rock under a roasting sun. There are no plants here at all, and thus no oxygen. Any human would die up here. It's a world hostile to us, strange for a world we have totally taken over. The land may be quiet and desolate but the expanse of blue in front of you is not so. The slow moving tranquil waters, washing frothy waves onto the baked beach you stand on are full of creatures as alien to us as the planet. This is the story of 24 hours in these rich oceans.

Passing down to the shallow sun lit coastal waters much of what's around is familiar. Sponges and corals of a multitude of colour contrast dramatically to the drab surface above these waves, the crystal clear waters allowing perfect vision in this world. Life has existed below the waves for hundreds of millions of years but in the last few million years something amazing has happened-an explosion of life and diversity that will never be surpassed. Below, on these crags of brightly coloured corals are among the smallest of creatures here. Haluciagena [hal-lu-seea-gena] are small worm like animals, baring close resemblance to worms or caterpillars. Less than the length of your fingernail they walk ponderously on many sets of legs, nibbling off small crustaceans and algae that adorn the coral. Coloured brightly like the coral they live on, these small orange, purple and red marbled worms associate among these mid-day lit waters, creating small clumps of colour among the rocks. Although beautiful and resembling caterpillars they are a lot harder to pick up. Move close to one and they bristle their twin rows of sharp spines in your direction, a definite reason not to pick one up.    

They are not the only strange and spined creatures here. Among the dazzling displays of coral crawling with Haluciagena are lumps of spined mass, crawling along the sea bed. Around a foot long, each are roughly rectangular, feature large spines on their top and seem to have scales or plates on their bodies. These strange life forms will become in many millions of years the snails that destroy many plants in our gardens. Called Wiwaxia [wi-wax-ia] this dull coloured mollusc slimes its way around the sea floor sucking up the algae growth that decorates, like a lawn of grass, the sea bed.

A small batch of Haluciagena are picking away at sponges, their bright colours allowing them to camouflage themselves quite well  among the marbled coloured spires that grow in these waters. A sudden movement creates a sudden movement among the worms, spines point towards the target but they have no reason to fear. Sliding carefully out a hole in the stone is one of the Cambrian seas strangest animals. Any one who saw Opabinia [opi-bin-ia] would be forgiven to think that it was some invader from another world far off. It looks like a jumbled assortment of various evolutionary parts, moulded to form one amazingly weird animal, so strange that no child could come up with it. Opabinia has a narrow body, with flaps along both sides that allow it to swim rapidly, and a narrow flat tail. Its rounded head bares a thin proboscis or tube with a small claw on its end, and the same head carries five eyes, each made from a multitude on lenses like a insects.  While ugly and strange, Opabinia is amongst the most beautiful animals in these waters, speckled with the same coral colours, and bright fluorescent blues, its colour scheme making these animals stand out more in the water, as you notice more of them swimming among the rocks. This example must be as long a single finger, small by most modern animal examples, and you watch as it goes about its business. Paying little attention to the spiny creatures it disturbed it swims, its body moving like a snake though the water, fast and agile, passing around corals and stones. Its ting proboscis is adorned with a single claw. Hiding in a small hole it waits for a passer by. A small primitive shrimp, its pink body obvious in the water. Quick as a flash the claw grabs the poor shrimp and drags it back to Opabinia's waiting mouth. With that it swims off, leaving you quickly behind.

The day passes quickly on Earth at this time, brilliant sun giving way to the darkness of night. The sea gets no quieter though, and it's at night that these remarkable oceans present their biggest surprise. As darkness drops in the shallows the animals remain busy, and the Cambrian ocean lights up with luminescence. Dark red pulses betray the shapes of Haluciagena, their bodies lighting up the sea floor, while Wiwaxia glows dull greens and whites, and Opabinia takes the most spectacular display, bright cyan and oranges, flashing spots of colour appearing like strange stars in a space not known to us. These displays are not just for looks. I the dark, the Opabinia swirl in numbers, looking for mates. Flashing their displays is a good way to attract, and also a good way to fight away others, with different flashing combinations for both. Mating is a quick process, and males will continue to flash and dance to pass their genes on as much as possible. This ballet of colour continues though the night.

A lone Opabinia appears to be doing well, and takes a break, floating around near an outcrop decorated by Wiwaxia. Suddenly in the darkness stripes of green and blue burst into view, moving with speed and power. The bright display of Opabinia quickly disappears. There are more of these coloured striped ghosts, moving amongst the breeding packs.  

The new dawn reveals the creature. The first of Earths super predators, the lion of the oceans. At over 1 metre long, Anomalocaris [anom-alo-ca-ris] is the largest animal in these waters. An arthropod, ancestor on spiders and insects, these huge monsters are certainly scarier. A bulbous head carries twin eyes, made from lenses that project on stalks, while two spined claws float below.  The creature's body, wider than your leg is plated, and carries flaps on either side, with a fan tail similar to Opabinia. As it glides effortlessly above you the creatures mouth, a wide circular maw beneath its head comes into view, lined with sharp teeth that would make sort work of anything unlucky to find its way in. It's these predators that have spurned the diversity in these seas, with animals having to come up with defences. Our Anomalocaris glides around the coral reef, its huge claws waving menacingly at the life around the sea floor.  However the spiny life here presents no easy meal and the immediate defence of Haluciagena puts the carnivore off, it pelts away out to sea. It soon finds a much richer feeding ground.

Mowing the carpet of algae growth further out are some of the most successful plated animals of all time, Trilobites. In these Cambrian seas there are many different kinds. Some with huge eyes, some with eyes on stalks so they can feed below sand and watch for predators, some who feed on other animals. But all Trilobites share common forms. A head, distinct with lenses for eyes, a middle plated body with many legs, and a tail. As a human it would be easy to mistake the more common and less strange looking creatures for Woodlice. Drab coloured, they don't look like much, but these creatures below you will be around for another 200 million years, longer than the dinosaurs that have not yet evolved.  Here Anomalocaris finds a likely target, locking its beady eyes on and attacking swiftly. The spined claws of this lion quickly grab a Trilobite off the floor, and he swims away. But Trilobites are no easy creature to kill. Plated with armour the claws of Anomalocaris can't break into the resistant shell. That is until the struggling Trilobite makes a wrong move, flipping on its side. Quick as a flash, like a expert swordsmen the lion strikes, its claws severing the head and earths super predator has its lunch, feeding and crushing the meal in its maw.  The sickening sound of crunching insect gets to your ears.

While they are the biggest and meanest animals, Anomalocaris are not without threats. Soon after catching his lunch, another similar sized lion swims into view. With so much competition in these diverse waters this will not be tolerated. Confrontation starts with violence straight away, each creature trying to grab the other with its spined claws, and head butting their rival. Our lion manages to slice an eye stalk from the rival, but neglects to move quick enough, and soon the rival is on top, grabbing the head in its claws and tugging sharply. As the lions dance above life below continues. A pregnant Opabinia has found a hole to make a nest and has already laid her eggs, covering the holes entrance with a thin layer of mud from her proboscis. Above the sounds of fighting continue, our lion finally breaking free, and flurrying a clawed arm at his one-eyed rival, slicing into the skin, causing dark bloody to seep out like gas. With only one eye and a wound the rival heads off, leaving our creature to his lunch.

Later that day the sea floor near the shore is moving more than usual, a sea of various colour below, and with good reason. The rival Anomalocaris lies dead, on its back on the sea floor, nothing more than food for the hungry creatures, so small and alien. How the mighty have fallen…
The first part of my first non-fiction story series, Past Earth, this focusing on life from the Cambrian seas, over 500 million years ago
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