US-China Collaborative Research On Critical Transitions In History Of Life

Zhe-Xi Luo (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) 
Douglas H. Erwin (National Museum of Natural History)
Samuel A. Bowring (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 
Jin Yugan (Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, China)


The history of life was profoundly influenced by several critical moments, such as the evolution of metazoan body plans and origins of animal phyla (Conway-Morris, 1993; Knoll and Carroll, 1999; Chen et al., 2000, 2004; Shu et al., 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003; Valentine, 2004), the mass extinction at the Permian and Triassic Boundary (Erwin, 1993, 1994, 2005; Jin et al., 2000; Grice et al., 2005; Ward et al., 2005), the rise of angiosperm plants, modern birds and mammals in the Early Cretaceous that came to dominate the worldês terrestrial biotas until today (Sun et al., 2002; Luo et al., 2003; Zhou et al., 2003) and the diversification and biogeographical evolution of mammals and plants in response to global environmental changes during the Early Tertiary that profoundly influenced the floras and faunas of major continents (Beard, 1998, 2002; Bowan et al., 2002; Qian and Ricklefs, 2000). 

trilobitesGreat advances in the understanding of these critical transitions of history of life have been made, thanks to a series of spectacular fossil discoveries and new progress in geology and paleontology from China (as reviewed by Jin et al., 2000; Gee, 2001; Sun et al., 2002; Bowan et al., 2002; Zhou et al., 2003; Kielan-Jaworowska et al., 2004). There has also been important progress in human evolutionary studies and archaeology (Hou et al., 2000) and the Quarternary climate evolution in China (Wang et al., 2001; Yuan et al., 2004). These noteworthy discoveries and advances from China have attracted worldwide attention. Geologists and paleontologists in the US have also made significant progress in recent years in high-precision geochronology on global scale (Condon et al., 2005), in innovative studies of paleoclimate and environmental evolution by using organic and isotope geochemistry (Grice et al., 2005), in active development of large-scale paleontological databases for macroevolutionary and biostratigraphical studies and for research on the Earth-Life systems during the critical intervals of history of life (e.g.,CHRONOSPaleobiology, and in large-scale phylogenetic and biogeographical analyses (Beard, 1998; Luo et al., 2003; Luo and Wible, 2005). 

hadroclipThese recent advances by Chinese and US scientists have stimulated increasingly extensive and successful international collaboration in paleontology and geology between China and the United States. Building on the success of these collaborations, we plan to hold a workshop of the US and Chinese scientists interested in integrated multidisciplinary research on the major Critical Transitions In History Of Life. This workshop will focus on research programs that can best capitalize on particular strengths and opportunities afforded by the scientific resources (such as access to geological and fossil sites with future scientific potential), infrastructures (such as the state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, important collections) and cooperation on large-scale databases and related cyber-infrastructure (CHRONOS, Paleobiology Database,, in both the United States and China. The objective is to promote interdisciplinary research in geobiology on these critical transitions in history of Life (Stanley et al., 1997), to stimulate truly collaborative research between Chinese and US scientists, and to facilitate cooperation in field exploration, and in development and sharing of databases and cyber-infrastructure between the next generation of researchers in each country. 


 Workshop Program

The workshop is designed to allow topics of common interests to be identified and new ideas to be exchanged among US and Chinese scientists. Potential research topics include (but not limited to):

  1. To evaluate how evolutionary rates vary through these major transitions, and through geological time generally. To evaluate how evolutionary rates vary in terrestrial versus marine systems and in different clades. To evaluate how molecular clocks can be calibrated by the well-dated fossil records. 
  2. To examine the paleoecological and environmental context of major transitions, including the integration of fossil, geochemical, climatologic and other information to establish the pattern of potential interactions and eventually develop testable, process-based models. 
  3. To determine the impact of climate changes on biotic evolution and paleobiogeography; whether the major climatic events and perturbations are associated with global geochemical cycles in deep time. Major extinction events are of particular interest. 
  4. To determine whether apparent cyclical patterns in deep time are truly cyclical, and if so to establish whether they are correlated with astronomical cycles; and if the forcing cycles can be identified, then how astronomically controlled cyclostratigraphy can be integrated with other techniques to improve the temporal resolution of the geologic time. 
  5. To investigate the role of climate change on the spread of hominids and the development of human civilization. We now appreciate that that humans have expanded rapidly in the past million years in part due to very low atmospheric CO2 levels. Important questions regarding the effect of climate on human evolution and migration remain and would benefit from collaboration between earth and archeological scientists.


             A specific measure of effectiveness of the workshop program will be new collaborative research efforts involving both American and Chinese scientists on a wide range of geological and paleontological programs, aimed at addressing these geobiological issues of broad significance. The presentations and activities are devoted to some basic research methodology universally applicable to all geological and paleontological studies, such as high-precision geochronology and the Earth Time Initiative, or emphasize on a particular topic about a major evolutionary transition. We envision that there will be two workshops for the US and Chinese scientists. The first workshop in the U.S. is held in the fall of 2005 with sponsorship from the National Science Foundation (USA), and supplementary support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). The second (and  sequel) workshop in China is to be held in 2006, with primary sponsorship from NSF-China, and supplementary support from NSF (USA).




Under the general theme of the Critical Transitions In History Of Life and with the aim to promote integrated multidisciplinary approach to the understanding of these critical evolutionary transitions (Stanley et al., 1997). The goals of the workshop are:

ammos to establish a set of broad research questions pertaining to crucial transitions in history of life that will be of common interest to Chinese and American scientists; and to identify the scientific resources, such as field geological and fossil sites, and laboratory infrastructures, major collections and databases, to address these research questions;

 to explore new analytical methods; and to accelerate the development of associated databases and cyber infrastructures relevant to the understanding of the major transitions in history of Earth-Life system, as well as to identify the broader impacts of these infrastructures and possible ways for the US and Chinese scientists to lead the way in this area; and

 to facilitate interaction with Chinese scientists interested in research exchanges with American universities, museums, and laboratories, and to identify opportunities for American students to perform relevant research or study in China.



Results and Implications
At the end of the workshop on Critical Transitions In History Of Life, the discussion and reviews by the workshop participants will be synthesized by the conveners to produce a white paper for public distribution that will summarize a broad range of research questions regarding and identify the future research opportunities that can be best pursued jointly by the Chinese and US scientists. 

The workshop conveners will establish a Development of a workshop website on the theme of Critical Transitions In History Of Life that documents the workshops programs and the related exchanges for the American students and research scientists who are interested in research opportunities in China and for the Chinese students and scientists who are interested in exchange opportunities in the US. 

animalIntegrative and collaborative research on the Critical Transitions In History Of Lifehas broad implications for the US and Chinese Earth Sciences community. The major transitions are of interest not only to paleontologists, but also to geochronologists, isotope and organic geochemists, and sedimentologists, and are most likely to stimulate future multidisciplinary research between the US and Chinese scientists. It is expected that these activities will create a network of Chinese and American scientists with common goals so as to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and information. The conveners will strive to create opportunity for junior scientists and students to be involved in international collaboration. 




Specific Topics

Critical Transition 1: Biotic and Environmental Evolution of Neoproterozoic

 Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian biostratigraphy & high-precision geochronology of the Neoproterozoic-Cambrian transition.

 Animal and algal evolution of the Neoproterozoic biosphere and interactions between Neoproterozoic climate change and biological evolution.

 Late Neoproterozoic period environmental changes, as reflected by the isotopic geochemistry; correlation of evolution of multicellular life and biogeochemical cycles. 

Critical Transition 2: Permo-Triassic Extinction and Recovery

 High-resolution biostratigraphy and geochronology; and patterns of extinction across Permo-Triassic boundary and related environmental changes.

 Causes and consequences of the end-Permian mass extinction; biotic recovery following mass extinctions. 

Critical Transition 3: Origin Of Modern Terrestrial Biotas In Mesozoic 

 Mass extinction and origination in terrestrial biotas through the Triassic and Jurassic transition, and response of the terrestrial ecosystem to biogeochemical cycles and climatic variation. 

 Ecosystem evolution during the Early Cretaceous

 Origins and diversification of modern mammalian groups in Mesozoic. 

 Origins and early diversification of angiosperm plants and evolution of Cretaceous floras.

 Transition from non-avian theropods to birds and diversification of modern birds. 

Critical Transition 4: Cenozoic Mammalian faunal and biogeographic evolution

 The Paleocene-Eocene transition in mammalian faunas, and large-scale paleobiogeography of Eurasia and North America.

 Early Tertiary primate evolution. 

 Paleoclimatic reconstruction of both terrestrial and marine environments across the Paleocene/Eocene boundary. 

Critical Transition 5: Pleistocene Human Cultural Evolution And Climate Changes

 Paleolithic archaeology and human cultural evolution. 

 Pleistocene climatic and oceanographic changes and transitions of the last Interglacial Asian Monsoon

Development of Database and Cyber Infrastructure for Understanding Critical Transitions Of History Of Life: 

 The Chronos network system as an international network to assemble, integrate and distribute data relevant to earth history.

 GeoSystems ( for studies of Earth’s deep-time climate and linked systems, climatic-tectonic and climatic-biotic processes.

 Quantitative biostratigraphy; rates and scaling laws of geologic processes. 

 Paleobiology Database: comprehensive paleobiological databases of geographic, stratigraphic, and lithological information for fossil taxa. database for broad dissemination of pixel and voxel morphological data for phylogenetic and evolutionary studies.

References Cited

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Conway-Morris. S. 1993. The fossil record and the early evolution of the Metazoa. Nature 361, 219 - 225 

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Kielan-Jaworowska, Z., Cifelli, R. L., and Luo. Z.-X. 2004. Mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs - Origins, Evolution, and Structure. Columbia University Press, New York. Pp. i-xv; 1-630. Luo, Z.-X., Q. Ji, Wible, J. R., and Yuan, C.-X. 2003. An Early Cretaceous Tribosphenic mammal and metatherian evolution. Science 302:1934-1940. 

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Sun, G., Ji, Q., Dilcher, D. L., Zheng, S. L., Nixon, K. C., and Wang, X-F. 2002. Archaefructaceae, a new basal angiosperm family Science 296: 899-904. 

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Wang, Y. J., Cheng, H., Edwards, R. L., An, Z. S., Wu, J. Y., Shen, C.-C., and Dorale, J. A. 2001. A high-resolution absolute-dated late pleistocene monsoon record from Hulu Cave, China. Science 294:2345-2348. 

Ward, P. D., Botha, J., Buick, R., De Kock, M. O., Erwin, D. H., Garrison, G. H., Kirschvink, J. L., and Smith, R. 2005. Abrupt and gradual extinction among late permian land vertebrates in the Karoo Basin, South Africa. Science 307:709-714. 

Yuan, D.-X., Cheng, H., Edwards, R. L., Dykoski, C. A., Kelly, M. J., Zhang, M.-L., Qing, J.-M., Lin, Y.-S., Wang, Y.-J., Wu, J.-Y., Dorale, J. A., An, Z.-S., and Cai, J.-Y. 2004. Timing, duration, and transitions of the last interglacial Asian monsoon. Science 304:575-578. 

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National Natural Science Foundation of China

    Geobiodiversity     Database