The findings, published online today in the journal Current Biology, resolve "Darwin's dilemma": the sudden appearance of a plethora of modern animal groups in the fossil record during the early Cambrian period.
"The abrupt appearance of dozens of animal groups during this time is arguably the most important evolutionary event after the origin of life," says lead author Associate Professor Michael Lee of the University of Adelaide's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the South Australian Museum.
"These seemingly impossibly fast rates of evolution implied by this Cambrian explosion have long been exploited by opponents of evolution. Darwin himself famously considered that this was at odds with the normal evolutionary processes.
"However, because of the notorious imperfection of the ancient fossil record, no-one has been able to accurately measure rates of evolution during this critical interval, often called evolution's Big Bang.