OUR RESEARCH

STUDYING THE WORLD’S OLDEST FOSSILS

My research has significantly expanded our understanding of the Ediacara biota, which represent the precursors and direct competitors to the oldest animals on Earth. My multidisciplinary research combines numerical methods and advanced instrumentation (i.e. see my edited volume: Laflamme et al., 2011), with experimental procedures and field work into a single research direction focusing on unraveling the true diversity at the dawn of animal life, and in explaining preservational biases in the early animal fossil record.

EDIACARAN PRESERVATION

My studies (Darroch, Laflamme et al., 2012; Laflamme et al., 2011; Laflamme et al., in prep) used advanced instrumentation such as environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM) to analyze geochemical and sedimentological aspects of Ediacaran fossilization. My novel approach involved characterizing, for the first time, exceptionally-preserved Ediacaran fossils and comparing the results to those obtained in experiments designed to replicate Ediacaran-style preservation.

Ediacaran extinction

Following the success of my GSA session (T54: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Studying the Causes and Consequences of Mass Extinction), I was invited by Gondwana Research to write a review of the extinction of the Ediacaran biota (Laflamme et al, 2013), and how it relates to the Cambrian explosion of complex animal life (Erwin, Laflamme, et al., 2011). My research supports a system-wide ecological restructuring resulting from biological pressures associated with the evolution of predation, the expansion of bioturbation, and the biomechanical change from osmotrophic (osmosis-only feeding) to filter-feeding ecosystems. This timely review will guide future studies on the origin and early evolution of animals. Recent publications on this topic from my laboratory include Darroch et al. (2015), Darroch et al. (in review, Geology).

Ediacaran classification

My description, interpretation, and classification of Ediacaran organisms over the past 10 years have significantly expanded our knowledge of the oldest Ediacaran Lagerstätten in Newfoundland (Laflamme et al., 2004; Laflamme et al., 2007, 2011b, 2012; Narbonne, Laflamme, et al., 2009), Australia (Laflamme et al., accepted), and northwestern Canada (Narbonne, Laflamme et al., 2014). Alpha taxonomy is the basis for all community-level studies, and is essential in defining and interpreting diversity and disparity in the oldest communities. My work has been pivotal in constructing character-based phylogenetic (evolutionary) relationships amongst the enigmatic Ediacara biota, allowing for the erection of a hierarchical classification scheme (Narbonne, Laflamme, et al., 2009; Laflamme et al., 2012).

Ediacaran phylogeny

The evolutionary relationships within the Ediacara biota, and how they are related to modern animals, are topics of significant controversy and central to my research direction. My review of Ediacaran fronds (Laflamme and Narbonne, 2008a,b) showcased that previous phylogenetic relationships represented shared ecologies and functional morphologies, rather than shared ancestries, implying that these forms were unrelated to each other. This led to collaborations with world renowned paleontologists (Xiao and Laflamme, 2009; Erwin, Laflamme, et al., 2011) which proposed that Ediacaran organisms represent an assortment of clades with distinct evolutionary histories all sharing a common mode of preservation (Narbonne, 2005; Xiao and Laflamme, 2009; Erwin, Laflamme, et al., 2011).

Ediacaran form and function

My theoretical modeling of Ediacaran feeding strategies, which demonstrated the importance of a high surface-area to volume constructions in osmotrophic feeding, has been pivotal in the debate surrounding the affinities of the Ediacara biota (Laflamme et al., 2009; Laflamme, 2014). My functional morphology research directed several external research programs, leading to extensive consultation and co-authorship (Singer, Plotnick and Laflamme, 2012; Sperling, Peterson, and Laflamme, 2011; Ghisalberti, Gold, Laflamme et al. 2014). Recent collaborations have resulted in an innovative modeling approach, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which was used to quantitatively analyze the hydrodynamic behavior of the enigmatic 555-million-year-old Ediacaran fossil Tribrachidium (Rahman et al., 2015).