33.3: The Colonization of Land
Changes in the environment of the early Earth drove the evolution of organisms. As prokaryotic organisms in the oceans began to photosynthesize, they produced oxygen. Eventually, oxygen saturated the oceans and entered the air, resulting in an increase in atmospheric oxygen concentration, known as the oxygen revolution approximately 2.3 billion years ago. Therefore, organisms that could use oxygen for cellular respiration had an advantage. More than 1.5 years ago, eukaryotic cells and multicellular organisms also began to appear. Initially, all of these species were restricted to the oceans of Earth.
The first organisms to live on land were photosynthetic prokaryotes that inhabited moist environments near ocean shores. Despite the lack of water, terrestrial environments offered an abundance of sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. Around 500 million years ago, the ancestors of nowadays plants were able to colonize drier environments, but they required adaptations to prevent dehydration. They developed methods for reproduction that did not depend on water and protected their embryos from drying out. These early plants furthermore evolved a vascular system that included roots to acquire water and nutrients and a shoot to obtain sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Plants and fungi appear to have colonized land at the same time. Their coevolution onto land is the result of the mutually beneficial relationship between many plants and fungi, seen in both modern organisms and some of the earliest plant fossils; Fungi aid in the absorption of nutrients and water while benefiting from the nutrients provided by the plant.
Arthropods were the first animal species to colonize land, around 450 million years ago. The first tetrapods later evolved to live on land as well, finding an abundance of food in the plant species that had colonized the land. Amphibians dominated terrestrial animal life for 100 million years. Later, dinosaurs and then mammals would become the most abundant terrestrial animals.