The Neoproterozoic, 1000–541 million years (Myr) ago, saw the transition from a largely bacterial world to the emergence of multicellular grazers, suspension feeders and predators. This article explores the hypothesis that the first appearance of large, multicellular heterotrophs was fueled by an elevated supply of nutrients and carbon from the bottom of the food chain to higher trophic levels. A refined record of molecular fossils of algal sterols reveals that the transition from dominantly bacterial to eukaryotic primary production in open marine habitat occurred between 659 and 645 Myr ago, in the hot interlude between two Snowball Earth glaciations. This bacterial–eukaryotic transition reveals three characteristics: it was rapid on geological timescales, it followed an extreme environmental catastrophe and it was permanent — hallmarks of an ecological hysteresis that shifted Earth's oceans between two self-stabilizing steady states. More than 50 million years of Snowball glaciations and their hot aftermath may have purged old-world bacterial phytoplankton, providing empty but nutrient-rich ecospace for recolonization by larger algae and transforming the base of the food web. Elevated average and maximum particle sizes at the base of the food chain may have provided more efficient energy and nutrient transfer to higher trophic levels, fueling an arms race toward larger grazers, predators and prey, and the development of increasingly complex feeding and defense strategies.

You do not currently have access to this content.