For most of its existence, planet Earth has been a brutal, inhospitable, toxic nightmare, until a half billion years ago when – KABOOM! – life suddenly appeared. First Animals, a new documentary from The Nature of Things, takes you back to the Cambrian Explosion through newly-discovered fossils that tell us more about our own origins.
Renowned evolutionary biologist Maydianne Andrade is our guide, showing us how complex – and dangerous – life among the first animals really was.
“The information embedded in this rock is evolution’s raw data,” says Andrade. “We see how the first guts digested food, how the first eyes processed images, how the first hunters tracked down their prey.
“These are the very early building blocks of animal evolution.”
High up a mountainside in a British Columbia fossil bed, Maydianne joins a team from the Royal Ontario Museum, led by paleontologist Jean-Bernard Caron. They are literally exposing hundreds of new fossils every day.
“There is a sense that you are liberating them from the rocks,” says Caron. “When you split a rock you never know what you’re going to get inside, so there’s this ‘wow’ moment … when you observe for the first time an animal that had been in the mud, you know, for half a billion years.”
First Animals will introduce you to cast of bizarre creatures, including Yawunik, a predator with a deadly, whip-like head-mounted combo of claws and antennae; Metaspriginna, a little fish-like creature with the very first signs of a backbone – making it our earliest ancestor; and a mystery beast nicknamed “Spaceship,” whose identity is brand new to science – and the centre of the film’s detective story.
“Why do we have the animals as we know them today?” asks Jean-Bernard Caron. “And that relates to an even deeper question, which is, where do we come from?”
The creatures of the Cambrian are brought back to life through stunning 3-D animation, based on the painstaking work done by the ROM team back in their Toronto laboratories. Once they swim across the screen, you’ll realize how lucky we are that they aren’t brushing up against our feet in modern oceans.
“These are alien creatures,” says paleo-artist Lars Fields, “something you would see in a science fiction story about what ocean life was like on another planet. But these actually existed on earth.”
Existed, and went extinct. But they were the first to have the body parts most animals still have today – designs test-driven by mother nature 500 million years ago.
“Something big happened around 540 million years ago the so-called Cambrian explosion,” says Jean Bernard Caron
“The beginning of all animal life, that kick-started evolution and created a half-billion-year-old family tree that includes us?” says Maydianne. “Yeah, I’d say that’s something big.”
Watch First Animals on The Nature of Things, airing October 18, 2019.
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