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Atmospheric hyperoxia, with pO2 in excess of 30%, has long been hypothesized to account for late Paleozoic (360–250 million years ago) gigantism in numerous higher taxa. However, this hypothesis has not been evaluated statistically because comprehensive size data have not been compiled previously at sufficient temporal resolution to permit quantitative analysis. In this study, we test the hyperoxia-gigantism hypothesis by examining the fossil record of fusulinoidean foraminifers, a dramatic example of protistan gigantism with some individuals exceeding 10 cm in length and exceeding their relatives by six orders of magnitude in biovolume. We assembled and examined comprehensive regional and global, species-level datasets containing 270 and 1823 species, respectively. A statistical model of size evolution forced by atmospheric pO2 is conclusively favored over alternative models based on random walks or a constant tendency toward size increase. Moreover, the ratios of volume to surface area in the largest fusulinoideans are consistent in magnitude and trend with a mathematical model based on oxygen transport limitation. We further validate the hyperoxia-gigantism model through an examination of modern foraminiferal species living along a measured gradient in oxygen concentration. These findings provide the first quantitative confirmation of a direct connection between Paleozoic gigantism and atmospheric hyperoxia.

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