Early land plants and oceanic extinctions

In September 2022 Earth-logs highlighted how greening of the continents affected the composition of the continental crust. It now seems that was not the only profound change that the first land plants wrought on the Earth system. Beginning in the Silurian, the spread of vegetation swept across the continents during the Devonian Period. From a height of less than 30 cm among the earliest species by the Late Devonian the stature of plants went through a large increase with extensive forests of primitive tree-sized conifers, cycads, horsetails and sporiferous lycopods up to 10 m tall. Their rapid evolution and spread was not hampered by any herbivores. It was during the Devonian that tetrapod amphibians emerged from the seas, probably feeding on burgeoning terrestrial invertebrates. The Late Devonian was marked by five distinct episodes of extinction, two of which comprise the Devonian mass extinction: one of the ‘Big Five’. This affected both marine and terrestrial organisms. Neither flood volcanism nor extraterrestrial impact can be linked to the extinction episodes. Rather they marked a long drawn-out period of repeated environmental stress.

Phytoplankton bloom off the east coast of Scotland ‘fertilised’ by effluents carried by the Tay and Forth estuaries.

One possibility is that a side effect of the greening of the land was the release of massive amounts of nutrients to the seas that would have resulted in large-scale blooms of phytoplankton whose death and decay depleted oxygen levels in the water column. That is a process seen today where large amounts of commercial fertilisers end up in water bodies to result in their eutrophication. Matthew Smart and others from Indiana University-Purdue University, USA and the University of Southampton, UK, geochemically analysed Devonian lake deposits from Greenland and Scotland to test this hypothesis (Smart, M.S. et al. 2022. Enhanced terrestrial nutrient release during the Devonian emergence and expansion of forests: Evidence from lacustrine phosphorus and geochemical records. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 134, early release article;  DOI: 10.1130/B36384.1).

Smart et al. show that in the Middle and Late Devonian the lacustrine strata show cycles in their abundance of phosphorus (P an important plant nutrient) that parallel evidence for wet and dry cycles in the lacustrine basins. The cycles show that the same phosphorus abundance patterns occurred at roughly the same times at five separate sites. This may suggest a climatic control forced by changes in Earth’s orbital behaviour, similar to the Milankovich Effect on the Pleistocene climate and at other times in Phanerozoic history. The wet and dry intervals show up in the changing ratio between strontium and copper abundances (Sr/Cu): high values signify wet conditions, low suggesting dry. The wet periods show high ratios of rubidium to strontium (Rb/Sr) that suggest enhanced weathering, while dry periods show the reverse – decreased weathering.

When conditions were dry and weathering low, P built up in the lake sediments, whereas during wet conditions P decreases; i.e. it was exported from the lakes, presumably to the oceans. The authors interpret the changes in relation to the fate of plants under the different conditions. Dry periods would result in widespread death of plants and their rotting, which would release their P content to the shallowing, more stagnant lakes. When conditions were wetter root growth would have increased weathering and more rainfall would flush P from the now deeper and more active lake basins. The ultimate repository of the sediments and freshwater, the oceans, would therefore be subject to boom and bust (wet and dry) as regards nutrition and phytoplankton blooms. Dead phytoplankton, in turn, would use up dissolved oxygen during their decay. That would lead to oceanic anoxia, which also occurred in pulses during the Devonian, that may have contributed to animal extinction.

See also: Linking mass extinctions to the expansion and radiation of land plants, EurekaAlert 10 November 2022; Mass Extinctions May Have Been Driven by the Evolution of Tree Roots, SciTechDaily, 14 November 2022.

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