Two-phase increase in the maximum size of life over
3.5 billion years reflects biological innovation
and environmental opportunity
Jonathan L. Paynea,1, Alison G. Boyerb, James H. Brownb, Seth Finnegana, Michał Kowalewskic, Richard A. Krause, Jr.d,
S. Kathleen Lyonse, Craig R. McClainf, Daniel W. McSheag, Philip M. Novack-Gottshallh, Felisa A. Smithb,
Jennifer A. Stempieni, and Steve C. Wangj
aDepartment of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, 450 Serra Mall, Building 320, Stanford, CA 94305;bDepartment of Biology,
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131;cDepartment of Geosciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg,
VA 24061;dMuseum fu ¨r Naturkunde der Humboldt–Universita ¨t zu Berlin, D-10115, Berlin, Germany;eDepartment of Paleobiology, National
Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560;fMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing,
CA 95039;gDepartment of Biology, Box 90338, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708;hDepartment of Geosciences, University of West
Georgia, Carrollton, GA 30118;iDepartment of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309; andjDepartment
of Mathematics and Statistics, Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA 19081
Edited by James W. Valentine, University of California, Berkeley, CA, and approved November 14, 2008 (received for review July 1, 2008)
The maximum size of organisms has increased enormously since
the initial appearance of life >3.5 billion years ago (Gya), but the
pattern and timing of this size increase is poorly known. Conse-
quently, controls underlying the size spectrum of the global biota
have been difficult to evaluate. Our period-level compilation of the
largest known fossil organisms demonstrates that maximum size
increased by 16 orders of magnitude since life first appeared in the
fossil record. The great majority of the increase is accounted for by
2 discrete steps of approximately equal magnitude: the first in the
middle of the Paleoproterozoic Era (?1.9 Gya) and the second
during the late Neoproterozoic and early Paleozoic eras (0.6–0.45
Gya). Each size step required a major innovation in organismal
complexity—first the eukaryotic cell and later eukaryotic multicel-
lularity. These size steps coincide with, or slightly postdate, in-
creases in the concentration of atmospheric oxygen, suggesting
latent evolutionary potential was realized soon after environmen-
tal limitations were removed.
body size ? Cambrian ? oxygen ? Precambrian ? trend
body size evolution within individual taxonomic groups (1–9),
the first-order pattern of body size evolution through the history
(and may be limited by) a broad spectrum of physiological,
ecological, and evolutionary processes (10–16), detailed docu-
mentation of size trends may shed light on the constraints and
innovations that have shaped life’s size spectrum over evolu-
tionary time as well as the role of the body size spectrum in
structuring global ecosystems. Bonner (17) presented a figure
portraying a gradual, monotonic increase in the overall maxi-
mum size of living organisms over the past 3.5 billion years. The
pattern appears consistent with a simple, continuous underlying
process such as diffusion (18), but could also reflect a more
complex process. Bonner, for example, proposed that lineages
evolve toward larger sizes to exploit unoccupied ecological
niches. For decades, Bonner’s has been the only attempt to
quantify body size evolution over the entire history of life on
Earth, but the data he presented were not tied to particular fossil
specimens and were plotted without consistent controls on
taxonomic scale against a nonlinear timescale. Hence, we have
lacked sufficient data on the tempo and mode of maximum size
change to evaluate potential first-order biotic and abiotic con-
trols on organism size through the history of life.
Here, we document the evolutionary history of body size on
Earth, focusing on the upper limit to size. Use of maximum size
allows us to assess constraints on the evolution of large body size
espite widespread scientific and popular fascination with
the largest and smallest organisms and numerous studies of
and avoids the more substantial empirical difficulties in deter-
mining mean, median, or minimum size for all life or even for
many individual taxa. For each era within the Archean Eon
(4,000–2,500 Mya) and for each period within the Proterozoic
(2,500–542 Mya) and Phanerozoic (542–0 Mya) eons, we ob-
tained the sizes of the largest known fossil prokaryotes, single-
celled eukaryotes, metazoans, and vascular plants by reviewing
the published literature and contacting taxonomic experts. Sizes
were converted to volume to facilitate comparisons across
disparate taxonomic groups (see Data and Methods). The data-
base is deposited in Data Dryad (www.datadryad.org) and can
be accessed at http://hdl.handle.net/10255/dryad.222.
The maximum body volume of organisms preserved in the fossil
record has increased by ?16 orders of magnitude over the last
3.5 billion years (Fig. 1). Increase in maximum size occurred
episodically, with pronounced jumps of approximately 6 orders
of magnitude in the mid-Paleoproterozoic (?1.9 Gya) and
during the Ediacaran through Ordovician (600–450 Mya). Thus,
?75% of the overall increase in maximum body size over
geological time took place during 2 geologically brief intervals
that together comprise ?20% of the total duration of life on
Paleoproterozoic size increase occurs as a single step in Fig.
1, reflecting the presence of Grypania spiralis in the Paleopro-
terozoic (Orosirian) Negaunee Iron Formation of Canada (19).
The taxonomic affinities of these fossils are controversial: Their
morphological regularity and size suggest they are the remains of
eukaryotic organisms (19, 20), but they have also been inter-
preted as composite microbial filaments (21). Possible trace
fossils of similar age and comparable size occur in the Stirling
Quartzite of Australia and the Chorhat Sandstone of India,
suggesting Orosirian size increase may not have been confined
to Grypania (22, 23). Slightly younger specimens of similar sizes
from the Changzhougou and Changlinggou formations of China
Author contributions: J.L.P., A.G.B., J.H.B., S.F., M.K., R.A.K., S.K.L., C.R.M., D.W.M.,
P.M.N.-G., F.A.S., J.A.S., and S.C.W. designed research, performed research, analyzed data,
and wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.
1To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/
© 2008 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA
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no. 1 www.pnas.org?cgi?doi?10.1073?pnas.0806314106
have also been interpreted as macroalgae, although some may be
pseudofossils (24, 25). Specimens of Grypania spiralis in the ?1.6
Gya Rohtas Formation of Vindhyan Supergroup in India exhibit
clear annulations and represent the oldest uncontroversial eu-
karyotic macrofossils (26). Thereafter, maximum size remained
approximately constant for ?1 billion years (Fig. 1). If the
Negaunee specimens are composite microbial filaments rather
than eukaryotic (or prokaryotic) individuals, as suggested by
Samuelsson and Butterfield (21), they would be excluded from
our dataset because they would not be the remains of individual
organisms. In this case, the size jump would shift forward in time
to the first true eukaryotic macrofossil (the Vindhyan Grypania
in the most extreme case), but the magnitude of the size jump
and its association with the appearance of eukaryotic organisms
would be essentially unchanged.
The second major increase in maximum size began with the
appearance of the taxonomically problematic Vendobionts dur-
ing the Ediacaran Period (635–542 Mya). These were followed
in turn by larger Cambrian (542–488 Mya) anomalocariid ar-
thropods and even larger Ordovician (488–443 Mya) nautiloid
cephalopods. The largest Ordovician cephalopods were nearly 6
The continuing diversification of terrestrial and marine life
since the Ordovician has resulted in comparatively minor in-
crease in the sizes of the largest species. The maximum size of
animals has increased by only 1.5 orders of magnitude since the
Ordovician; the giant sauropods of the Mesozoic and even the
extant blue whale add comparatively little to the size range of
animals (Fig. 1). The largest living individual organism, the giant
sequoia, is only 3 orders of magnitude bigger than the largest
Ordovician cephalopod and one and a half orders of magnitude
bigger than the blue whale (Fig. 1).
Several lines of evidence indicate that our record of maximum
size accurately reflects both the fossil record and the actual
history of maximum size at the taxonomic and temporal scales
addressed. Larger fossils and larger fossil species tend to be
remarked upon in the paleontological literature; genus and
species names with roots meaning ‘‘large’’ or ‘‘giant’’ are com-
monly applied to particularly sizeable taxa, making them easy to
identify in the literature. Because we treat size data on a
logarithmic scale, even moderate sampling biases are unlikely to
cause observed maxima to vary by ?1 or 2 orders of magnitude.
of magnitude, and the sizes of all living organisms span ?22
orders of magnitude (27). Although the upper bound error bars
for the individual data points cannot be readily estimated, these
errors are likely to be negligible given the size range addressed
in our study. For example, it is unlikely that dinosaurs, whales,
or cephalopods ?10 times the size of the largest known speci-
mens have ever existed. That the largest living plant and animal
species are not much bigger than the largest known fossils (Fig.
1) suggests fossils reliably sample not only trends but also
absolute values of maximum size at the temporal and taxonomic
scales considered in this study. Trends in trace fossil sizes are
generally concordant with the body fossil record (28), indicating
that the apparent size increase from the Ediacaran through
Ordovician does not merely reflect an increase in preservation
potential of large animals. Moreover, large-bodied fossils occur
in both well-fossilized clades (e.g., cephalopods) and taxa that
are preserved only under exceptional circumstances (e.g.,
simplest null model of diffusion away from a small starting size,
which has commonly been invoked to account for the tendency
of maximum size to increase through time within clades (18, 29,
30). If size evolves in a manner analogous to diffusion, size
increase and decrease would be equally likely for any lineage in
any time interval and, given constant diversity, the typical
maximum size would be expected to increase with the square
root of time elapsed. Based on the diffusive model alone, one
would predict initially rapid increase in maximum size early in
divergence from this pattern would suggest other causes at work.
In particular, the observed episodes of dramatic increase suggest
the origins of key evolutionary innovations, the removal of
environmental constraints, pulses of diversification, or more
likely, some combination of these. The relative stability in
maximum size between these episodes of increase suggests the
encountering of new environmental or biological upper bounds.
The existence of such boundaries is also consistent with the
observation that the historical maxima for numerous well-
fossilized animal phyla and plant divisions differ by only 2 orders
of magnitude (Fig. 2). Ongoing diversity increase and improved
sampling likely contribute to the continuing, albeit slow, increase
observed in the overall maximum size of plants and animals
through the Phanerozoic.
Increases in organismal complexity, first the eukaryotic cell
and later eukaryotic multicellularity, appear to have been pre-
requisites for increase in maximum size. The Paleoproterozoic
body fossils rather than the evolution of larger prokaryotes. The
apparent abruptness of the size increase from prokaryotic cells
to Grypania may reflect, at least in part, the limited preservation
and sampling of fossils of this age. However, even the largest
known prokaryote—the extant giant sulfur bacterium Thiomar-
garita namibiensis (27)—does not approach the size of the oldest
eukaryotic macrofossils, perhaps in part because simple diffu-
sion of nutrients into or within the cell becomes inefficient at
larger sizes (27). Moreover, Thiomargarita and other giant
bacteria consist of thin films of cytoplasm surrounding a hollow
interior; the metabolically active portion of their volume is
relatively small (27). Similarly, the Ediacaran–Ordovician jump
10002000 3000 4000
Biovolume (log mm3)
pO2 < 0.1% PALpO2 1%-10% PALpO2 ~ 100% PAL
Paleoar. Mesoar. Neoar.
illustrated separately for single-celled eukaryotes, animals, and vascular
plants for the Ediacaran and Phanerozoic. The solid line denotes the trend in
in discrete steps approximately corresponding to increases in atmospheric
oxygen levels in the mid-Paleoproterozoic and Ediacaran–Cambrian–early
Ordovician. Sizes of the largest fossil prokaryotes were not compiled past 1.9
Gya. Estimates of oxygen levels from Canfield (38) and Holland (37) are
expressed in percentage of PAL. Phan., Phanerozoic; Pz., Paleozoic; Mz.,
squares, animals; green diamonds, vascular plants; gray square, Vendobiont
(probable multicellular eukaryote).
Sizes of the largest fossils through Earth history. Size maxima are
Payne et al.
January 6, 2009 ?
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in maximum size occurred exclusively within multicellular eu-
karyotes. Notably, the largest multicellular eukaryotes during
plants, demonstrating that the size increase was not simply tied
to the structural or biomechanical properties of vertebrates or
trees. Rather, these size increases occurred within higher taxa
different from those that now contain the largest species. No
fossil or living single-celled eukaryote approaches the size of the
largest plants and animals (Fig. 1). This absence may reflect the
metabolic inefficiency of having a large cell with a single nucleus
and the inadequacy of diffusion as the primary transport process
within such a large organism (17).
Delays between innovation and size increase suggest that
increased organizational complexity alone was not sufficient to
drive increase in maximum size. Steranes (organic molecular
fossils) likely produced by stem-group eukaryotes have been
reported to occur indigenously in rocks that predate the earliest
macroscopic eukaryotic fossils by as much as 800 My (31, 32).
However, the time gap between the oldest preserved steranes
and the oldest eukaryotic body fossils could reflect the sparse
nature of the Archean and early Proterozoic body fossil record
or contamination of the Archean rocks by biomarkers from
younger organic matter (33). Delay between the advent of
eukaryotic multicellularity and subsequent size increase is more
clearly defined. The oldest definitive fossil of a multicellular
eukaryote—a red alga ?1,200 Myr old (34)—predates the initial
Ediacaran increase in maximum size by ?600 Myr. If older
specimens of Grypania or coeval producers of trace fossils were
multicellular (22), then the delay may have been even longer.
Explicitly testing other hypothesized biological and environ-
mental constraints on the evolution of maximum size is beyond
the scope of our data, but we note that the 2 most rapid increases
in maximum size correspond closely with the 2 primary episodes
of increase in the concentration of atmospheric oxygen (35–40).
That oxygen availability could potentially have limited maximum
oxygen concentrations in fossil and recent organisms (41–43).
Increases in atmospheric oxygen concentrations have long been
hypothesized as triggers for the Late Archean origin of the
eukaryotic cell and the Cambrian radiation of animals (44–50).
Increased oxygen concentrations have been also linked implicitly
(45) and explicitly (46, 51) to associated size changes, but the
magnitude of maximum size increase during these episodes and
their importance relative to size changes during intervening
times has not previously been assessed quantitatively.
Eukaryotes require oxygen for respiration, but the availability
of oxygen may also have mediated the transitions to eukaryotic
and multicellular organizations through other pathways, such as
the action of oxygen on communication-related transmembrane
proteins (52). Although the biosynthesis of sterols, which control
fluidity of the cell membrane in eukaryotes, may have been
possible even in the absence of oxygen (53, 54), aerobic metab-
olism does not occur at oxygen concentrations ?1–2% of the
present atmospheric level (PAL) (55). Even higher concentra-
tions may be required to maintain nitrate levels in the oceans
high enough for eukaryotic primary producers (which cannot fix
nitrogen) to compete effectively with nitrogen-fixing cyanobac-
teria (47). The evolution of large animals with greater demand
for oxygen probably required still higher oxygen concentrations,
consistent with geochemical data suggesting oxygen was at least
10% PAL by the beginning of the Cambrian (37, 56). Vascular
plants require similar ambient oxygen concentrations to respire
effectively (57). The minimum oxygen requirements of the
earliest animals are difficult to state exactly because they would
have depended on the extent to which they acquired oxygen via
diffusion versus through elaborated respiratory and circulatory
systems (49, 51).
Although increase in maximum size over time can often be
accounted for by simple diffusive models (18, 29, 30), a single
diffusive model does not appear capable of explaining the
evolution of life’s overall maximum size. Approximately 3/4 of
the 16-orders-of-magnitude increase in maximum size oc-
curred in 2 discrete episodes. The first size jump required the
evolution of the eukaryotic cell, and the second required
eukaryotic multicellularity. The size increases appear to have
occurred when ambient oxygen concentrations reached suffi-
cient concentrations for clades to realize preexisting evolu-
tionary potential, highlighting the long-term dependence of
macroevolutionary pattern on both biological potential and
Data and Methods
Data on the sizes of fossil organisms were compiled from our own existing
databases, extensive searches of the primary and secondary literature, and
consultation with taxonomic experts. We attempted to represent the evolu-
data on fossil prokaryotes for the Archaean and early Paleoproterozoic when
they were the largest known living organisms. Data were restricted to organ-
isms that can be considered individuals at the appropriate level of organiza-
tional hierarchy following McShea (58) to facilitate the greatest possible
comparability; we did not include the sizes of colonies or more loosely inte-
grated associations of individuals. Body volume, calculated by application of
simple geometric models (e.g., ellipsoids and cones), was used as a standard
measure of body size because it is both biologically meaningful and method-
ologically practical when comparing such morphologically and ecologically
diverse taxa (59). Although such estimates only approximate actual body
Biovolume (log mm3)
Biovolume (log mm3)
Cm O S
Cm O S
plant divisions. (A) Animal phyla. (B) Vascular plant divisions. Historical max-
timing of those historical maxima differs across clades. 1, Pteridophyta; 2,
Lycopodiophyta; 3, Pinophyta; 4, Ginkgophyta; 5, Cycadophyta; 6, Magnolio-
phyta; 7, Equisetophyta; E, Ediacaran; Cm, Cambrian; O, Ordovician; S, Silu-
rian; D, Devonian; C, Carboniferous; P, Permian; Tr, Triassic, J, Jurassic; K,
Cretaceous; Pg, Paleogene; N, Neogene.
Phanerozoic trends in size maxima for selected animal phyla and
www.pnas.org?cgi?doi?10.1073?pnas.0806314106Payne et al.
size trends span 16 orders of size magnitude. The observed data and the
geometric approximations used to calculate volume for individual fossil spec-
imens are included as Table S1.
Although our database contains only 93 recorded observations, the
amount of implicit information recorded is much larger. For example, it is
widely agreed that a specimen of Parapuzosia seppenradensis is the largest
ammonite fossil ever collected (60), and thus, each of the thousands (if not
millions) of ammonites ever seen in the field or collected for study must have
been smaller than this specimen. By extension of this argument, the database
over the past several centuries.
The full database analyzed in this study is deposited in Data Dryad (www.
datadryad.org) at http://hdl.handle.net/10255/dryad.222.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. This study is a product of the working group on body
size evolution (principal investigators: J.L.P., J.A.S., and M.K.) funded by the
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), National Science Founda-
tion Grant EF-0423641. We thank N. Butterfield, M, Carrano, W. DiMichele, L.
Dong, R. Feldmann, P. Gensel, J. Huntley, P. Janvier, A. Logan, S. Low, S. Lucas,
R. Lupia, W. Manger, K. Niklas, W. Ou, S. Porter, C. Schweitzer, H. Steur, R.
Taggert, B. Tiffney, S. Truebe, S. Wing, and S. Xiao for advice and assistance in
drafts of the manuscript; and G. Hunt and 2 anonymous reviewers for con-
structive and thoughtful suggestions.
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