When rain kick-started evolution

The end of the Palaeozoic Era was marked by the greatest known mass extinction at the Permian-Triassic boundary 252 Ma ago. An estimated 96% of known marine fossil species simply disappeared, as did 70% of vertebrates that lived on land. Many processes seem to have conspired against life on Earth although it seems that one was probably primary: the largest known flood-basalt event, evidence for which lies in the Siberian Traps. It took as long as 50 Ma for ecosystems to return to their former diversity. But, oddly, it was animals at the top of the marine food chain that recovered most quickly, in about 5 million years. There must have been food in the sea, but it was at first somewhat monotonous. The continents were still configured in the Pangaea supercontinent, so much land was far from oceans and thus dry. Oxygen was being drawn down from the atmosphere to combine with iron in Fe2O3 to form vast tracts of redbeds for which the Triassic is famous. From a peak of 30% in the Permian, atmospheric oxygen descended to 16% in the early Triassic, so living even at sea level would have been equivalent to surviving today at 2.7 km elevation today. Potential ecological niches were vastly reduced in fertility and in altitude, and Pangaea still had vast mountain ranges inherited from its formative tectonics as well as being arid, apart from in polar regions. Unsurprisingly, recovery of terrestrial diversity, especially among vertebrates, was slow during the early Triassic.

Triassic grey terrestrial sediments on the Somerset coast of SW England (credit: Margaret W. Carruthers; https://www.flickr.com/photos/64167416@N03/albums/72157659852255255)

Then, about halfway through the Triassic Period, it began to rain across Pangaea. Whether that was continual or seasonal is uncertain, although the presence of large mountains and high plateaus would favour monsoon circulation, akin to the present-day Indian monsoon associated with the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau. How do geologists know that central Pangaea became wetter? The evidence lies in grey sedimentary strata between the otherwise universal redbeds, which occur in the Carnian Age and span one to two million years around 232 Ma (Marshall, M. 2019. Did a million years of rain jump-start dinosaur evolution? Nature, v. 576, p. 26-28; doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03699-7). A likely driver for this change in colour is a rise in water tables that would exclude oxygen from sediments deposited recently. The red Iron-3 oxides were reduced, so that soluble iron-2 was leached out. Some marine groups, such as crinoids, underwent a sudden flurry of extinctions, as did plants and amphibians on land. But others received a clear boost from this Carnian Pluvial Event. A few dinosaurs first appear in older Triassic sediments, but during the Carnian they began to diversify from diminutive bipedal species into the main groups so familiar to many: ornithischians that lead to Stegosaurus and Triceratops and the forerunners of the saurischians that included huge long-necked herbivores and the bipedal theropods and birds. Within 4 Ma dinosaurs had truly begun their global hegemony. Offshore in shallow seas, the scleractinian corals, which dominate modern coral reef systems, also exploded during the Carnian from small beginnings in the earlier Triassic. It is even suspected that the Carnian nurtured the predecessor of mammals, although the evidence is only from isolated fossil teeth.

A Carnian shift in carbon isotopes, measured in Triassic limestones of the Italian Dolomites, to lower proportions of the heavier 13C suggests that a huge volume of the lighter 12C had entered the atmosphere. That could have resulted from large-scale volcanism, the 232 Ma old laves of the Wrangell Mountains in Alaska being a likely suspect. Such an input would have had a warming climatic outcome that would have increased tropical evaporation of ocean water and the humidity over continental masses. The once ecologically monotonous core of Pangaea may have greatly diversified into many more niches awaiting occupants, thereby stimulating the terrestrial evolutionary burst. Perhaps ironically, and fortunately, a volcanic near snuffing-out of life on Earth was soon followed by another with the opposite effect. Yet another negative outcome arrived with the flood basalts of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province at the end of the Triassic (201 Ma), to be followed by further adaptive radiation among those organisms that survived into the Jurassic.