End-Cretaceous mass extinction occurred in northern spring

This post’s title seems beyond belief for an event that occurred 66 million years ago: how can geologists possibly say that with any conviction? The claim is based on fossil fishes found in the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of North Dakota (see: A bad day at the end of the Cretaceous. April, 2019), described in a paper published on 1 April 2019. The horizon that displays all the classic evidence for an impact origin for the K-Pg extinction is a freshwater sediment laid down by a surge into a river system: the upstream result of the mega-tsunami driven by the Chicxulub impact in the Gulf of Mexico. Amongst much else it contains intact marine ammonites – the last of their kind – and freshwater paddlefish and sturgeon. The fishes are preserved exquisitely, with no sign of scavenging. Parts of their gills are clogged with microscopic spherules made of impact glass. They are pretty good ‘smoking guns’ for an impact, and are accompanied by dinosaur remains – an egg with an embryo, hatchlings and even a piece of skin.

A group of scientists from the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and the UK examined thin sections of the fishes’ bones (During, M.A.D. et al. 2022. The Mesozoic terminated in boreal springNature online publication, 23 February 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04446-1). These revealed growth layers that show lines of arrested growth (LAGs) separated by thicker layers. Such LAGs in modern paddlefish and sturgeon bones may indicate conditions of low food availability in winter, most growth being during warmer times of year. Each bone that was examined has only a thin outer zone of accelerated growth following its last LAG. So it seems that each specimen died in the Northern Hemisphere spring. This was confirmed by variations within the cyclic zonation of the relative proportions of carbon isotopes 13C and 12C, expressed as δ13C. In the LAGs δ13C is lower than in the thicker zones, which is consistent with decreased prey availability in winter, but see below.

Thin sections of fish bones from the K-Pg boundary layer in the Hell Creek Formation, showing lines of arrested growth marked by red arrowheads. The outermost (top) LAGs are succeeded by only a thin zone of accelerated growth during their last weeks of the fishes’ lives (credit: During et al., Fig. 2)

The paper by During et al. follows one with very similar content from the same deposit that was published about 12 weeks earlier (DePalma, R.A., et al. 2021. Seasonal calibration of the end-cretaceous Chicxulub impact event. Nature Science Reports, v. 11, 23704; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-03232-9). Yet During et al. do not refer to it, despite acknowledging DePalma’s guidance in the field and his granting access to his team’s specimens: maybe due to poor communications … or maybe not. DePalma et al. note thatmodern sturgeons are able to spend winters in the sea, which may also explain the low δ13C in the LAGs, as well as decreased prey availability does. They also examined damage by leaf-mining insects in fossil leaves at the site, which supports the springtime extinction hypothesis. Another study in DePalma et al. is the size range of newly hatched fish of three different Families that are founds as fossils in the K-Pg deposit. By comparing them with the growth histories of closely-related modern hatchlings they conclude that perhaps late spring to early summer is implied. Whatever, both papers go on to discuss the implications of their basic conclusions. Spring is a particularly sensitive time for the life cycles of many organisms; i.e. annual reproduction and newborns’ early growth. But some groups of egg-laying animals, such as perhaps dinosaurs, require longer incubation periods than do others, e.g. birds, and may be more vulnerable to rapid environmental change. That may explain the demise of the dinosaurs while their close avian relatives, or at least some of them, survived.  Yet the season in the Southern Hemisphere when the Chicxulub impact occurred would have been autumn. That may go some way towards explaining evidence that ecological recovery from mass extinction in the southern continents seems to have been faster. Almost certainly, the impact would have induced a double climatic whammy: warming in its immediate aftermath followed by global cooling plus a shutdown of photosynthesis as dust clouds enveloped the planet. Then there is the issue of contamination by potentially toxic compounds raised by Chicxulub. The K-Pg boundary seems likely to run and run as a geoscientific story more than four decades since it was first proposed.

See also: Sample, I. 2022. Springtime asteroid ramped up extinction rates, say scientists. The Guardian, 23 September 2022.

Dinosaur corner

Many adjectives have been applied to dinosaurs: terrifying; lumbering; long-dead; fierce; huge; nimble, carnivorous; herbivorous and so on. But exquisite and tiny do not immediately spring to mind. The mineral amber – strictly speaking a mineraloid because it isn’t crystalline – having formed from resins exuded by trees, preserves materials, including animals, that became trapped in the resin. The shores of the Baltic Sea used to be the main source of this semi-precious gemstone, but it has been overtaken by high-quality supplies from Kachin State in Myanmar. Most specimens contain small invertebrates, including spiders and insects, in varying states of preservation. Once in a while truly spectacular amber pebbles turn up. In early March 2020 the world’s media splashed a unique find: a miniature dinosaur (Xing, L. et al. 2020. Hummingbird-sized dinosaur from the Cretaceous period of Myanmar. Nature v. 579, p. 245–249; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2068-4).

Amber pebble from Myanmar containing a tiny vertebrate’s skull (credit: Lida Xing, China University of Geosciences)

The amber specimen, from Middle Cretaceous (99 Ma) sediments, contains a perfectly preserved skull less than 2 cm long. At first glance it appears to be that of a tiny bird. The authors used micro-CT scanning to reconstruct the entire skull in 3-D. Although superficially resembling that of a bird, with eye sockets ringed by scleral ossicles that modern birds also have. These suggest that the animal was active during the daytime. Its beak-like jaws have many small teeth, as do many ancient fossil birds but not modern ones. These features led to its name: Oculudentavis khaungraaeI, translated as ‘eye-tooth bird’. So, is it a bird? A number of features shown by the skull suggest that, strictly speaking, it is not. Anatomically, it is a dinosaur, possibly descended from earlier types, such as the Jurassic winged and feathered dinosaur Archaeopterix, which evolved to early, true birds with which Oculudentavis coexisted during the Cretaceous Period. Having teeth, it was probably carnivorous and preyed on invertebrates: it may have been fatally attracted to tree resin in which insects had been trapped.

Micro-CT image of Oculudentavis khaungraaeI skull (top); artist’s impression of it in life (bottom) (credits: Xing, L. et al. 2020; Jingmai O’Connor, China University of Geosciences)

Even if it was a bird , it is smaller than the smallest living example, the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) and, weighing an estimated 2 grams,  Oculudentavis is about one-sixth the size of the smallest known fossil bird. As a dinosaur, it is two orders of magnitude smaller than the most diminutive example of those found as fossils, the chicken-sized Compsognathus. Rather than being just an oddity, Oculudentavis demonstrates that extreme miniaturisation among avian dinosaurs held out evolutionary advantages.

Watch a video about the discovery and analysis of the tiny dinosaur

See also: Benson, R.B.J. 2020. Tiny bird fossil might be the world’s smallest dinosaur. Nature, v. 579, p. 199-200; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-00576-6.

Artist’s rendering of a Middle Jurassic coastal plain in what is now the Isle of Skye across which a mixed dinosaur megafauna is migrating (credit: De Polo et al. 2020; Fig. 24; artist Jon Hoad)

And now for the lumbering and sometimes scary kinds of dinosaur. Since discovery of Middle Jurassic sauropod and theropod trackways with up to 0.5 m wide footprints at Brothers’ Point on the Trotternish Peninsula of Skye, the Inner Hebridean island has become a magnet for those wishing to commune with big beasts. Now the same team from the University of Edinburgh report more from the same locality (De Polo, P.E. and 9 others 2020. Novel track morphotypes from new tracksites indicate increased Middle Jurassic dinosaur diversity on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. PLoS ONE, v. 15, article e0229640; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229640). One set, referred to as Deltapodus was probably made by a species of stegosaur: the one with vertical plates on its back and a tail armed with large spikes, animated caricatures of which figure in inane YouTube clips, especially beating off Tyrannosaurs. The new locality preserves 50 dinosaur tracks that suggest a rich community of species. The most prominent suggest bipedal ornithopod herbivores and small, possible carnivorous theropods, both with three-toed feet, large quadripedal sauropods whose prints resemble those of elephants, as well as those with larger back feet than front attributed to stegosaurs. The sediment sequence displaying the tracks contains structures typical of deposition on a wide coastal plain.

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.

Last day of the dinosaurs

As they say, ‘everyone knows’ that the dinosaurs were snuffed out, except, of course, for those that had evolved to become birds and somehow survived. When it happened is known quite precisely – at the end of the Cretaceous (66.043 ± 0.011 Ma) – and there were two possible causal mechanisms: emissions from the Deccan Trap flood basalts and/or the Chicxulub impact crater. But what was the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary event actually like? Many have speculated, but now there is evidence.

In 2016 a deep-sea drilling rig extracted rock core to a depth of 1.35 km beneath the sea floor off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, slightly off the centre of the circular Chicxulub structure (see K-T (K-Pg) boundary impact probed, November 2016). This venture was organised and administered jointly by the International Ocean Discovery Program IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) as Mission Specific Platform Expedition no. 364. Results from the analysis of the cored rock sequence have been generating pulses of excitement among palaeontologists, petrologists and planetary scientist on a regular basis. The science has been relatively slow to emerge in peer-reviewed print. Appetites have been whetted and the first substantial paper is about the bottom 130 metres of the core (Gulick, S.P.S. and 29 others 2019. The first day of the Cenozoic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 9 September 2019; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1909479116). It might seem as though the publication schedule has been stage managed to begin with, literally, the ‘bang’ itself.

The deepest 20 m thick layer is mainly silicate glass. It was formed in the seconds after the 12 km-wide impactor arrived to smash through the water and sea-floor sediments of the early Caribbean Sea, at speed of around 20 Km s-1. It vaporised water and rock as well as shoving aside the surrounding sea and blasting debris skyward and outward. In an instant a new hole in the crust was filled with molten rock. The overlying rock is a veritable apple-crumble of shattered debris mixed with and held together by glass, and probably formed as water flowed into the crater to result in explosive reaction with the molten crystalline crust beneath. The fragments lessen in size up the core, probably reflecting ejected material mixed in the displaced seawater. Impact specialists have estimated that this impactite layer formed in little more than ten minutes after collision. The glass-laden breccia is abruptly capped by bedded sediments, considered to have been delivered by the backwash of a huge, initial tsunami. In them are soils and masses of charcoal, from the surrounding land areas, scorched and burnt by the projectile’s entry flash, inundated by the tsunami and then dragged out to sea as it receded. These are the products of the hours following the impact as successive tsunamis swashed to and fro across the proto-Caribbean Basin; hence ‘The first day of the Cenozoic’, of Gulick et al.’s title.

Artist’s impression of the Chicxulub impact (Credit: Barcroft Productions for the BBC)

Other cores drilled beyond the scope of the Chicxulub crater during offshore oil exploration show a sequence of limestones with thick beds of gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O). Yet the crater debris itself contains no trace of this mineral. Around 325 Gt of sulfur, almost certainly in the form of SO2, entered the atmosphere on that first day, adding to the dust. Ending up in the stratosphere as aerosols it would have diffused solar radiation away from the surface, resulting in an estimated 25°C global cooling that lasted 25 years. The sulfur oxides in the lower atmosphere ended up in acid rain that eventually acidified the upper ocean to devastate shallow-marine life.

See also: Amos, J. 2019. The day the dinosaurs’ world fell apart. (BBC News 10 September 2019); Rocks at asteroid impact site record first day of dinosaur extinction (Phys.org); Wei-Haas, M. 2019. Last day of the dinosaurs’ reign captured in stunning detail.  National Geographic, 9 September 2019.

Mystery of upside-down dinosaurs resolved

Remains of ankylosaurs, a popular family of heavily armoured dinosaurs, occur in sedimentary sequences that range in age from early Jurassic to the close of the Cretaceous. Their defences seem almost impregnable, being constructed of thick, fused scales, often bearing formidable spines, which covered them completely. They bore a crude resemblance to modern armadillos apart from the fact that they were unable to roll-up defensively. In some species the rigid tail bears a large, knob of scale tissue. At up to 3 m long, were the tail to be swung it would have packed bone-cracking momentum. Interestingly, to a poorly sighted predator the club may have been mistaken for the animal’s head at the end of a long neck, so perhaps it lured a potential assailant within range of its devastating power. The largest ankylosaur, from the Cretaceous of western Canada, was the size of a small bus, up to 8m long, 1.5 m wide, standing 1.7 m high and weighing in at around 5 to 8 t. Such dimensions would have made it almost impossible to be bitten, even by the largest predatory dinosaurs, and difficult to turn over. Their teeth show that ankylosaurs were herbivorous, and their somewhat bulbous bodies almost certainly contained a massive digestion system.

Polski: JuraPark Bałtów - Park Dinozaurów - An...
Recfonstruction of Ankylosaurus at the JuraPark Bałtówin Poland (credit: Wikipedia)

The mystery lies in the fact that most ankylosaur fossils are found lying on their backs. Early dinosaur aficionados suggested a tendency for the lumbering beasts to tumble down slopes and become stranded on their backs, so to die miserably. Such clumsiness is hardly a positive characteristic of evolutionary fitness for such a long-lived group, and, besides, the sedimentary formations in which they are found indicate very gentle slopes. So, were they flipped by dextrous predators, as imagined in some early films purporting to look to the distant past? Probably not, for most well preserved fossils show no sign of bites or gnawing. From a study of 36 late-Cretaceous ankylosaurs from Alberta four Canadian and US palaeontologists (Mallon, J.C. et al. 2018. A “bloat-and-float” taphonomic model best explains the upside-down preservation of ankylosaurs. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 497, p. 117-127; doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.02.010 support the idea of their carcases or even living animals having been picked up by flood waters when their high centre of gravity would have flipped them upside down. Bloating through decay might then allow them to be transported large distances. Unsurprisingly, their conclusions rest on model simulations.

The winter of dinosaurs’ discontent

Under the auspices of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), during April and May 2016 a large team of scientists and engineers sank a 1.3 km deep drill hole into the offshore, central part of the Chicxulub impact crater, which coincided with the K-Pg mass extinction event. Over the last year work has been underway to analyse the core samples aimed at investigating every aspect of the impact and its effects. Most of the data is yet to emerge, but the team has published the results of advanced modelling of the amount of climate-affecting gases and dusts that may have been ejected (Artemieva, N. et al. 2017. Quantifying the release of climate-active gases by large meteorite imp-acts with a case study of Chicxulub. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 44; DOI: 10.1002/2017GL074879).  . From petroleum exploration in the Gulf of Mexico the impact site is known to have been underlain by about 2.5 to 3.5 km of Mesozoic sediments that include substantial amounts of limestones and evaporitic anhydrite (CaSO4) – thicknesses of each are of the order of a kilometre. The impact would inevitably have yielded huge volumes of carbon- and sulfur dioxide gases, as well as water vapour plus solid and molten ejecta. The first, of course, is a critical greenhouse gas, whereas SO2 would form sulfuric acid aerosols if it entered the stratosphere. They are known to block incoming solar radiation. So both warming and cooling influences would have been initiated by the impact. Dust-sized ejecta that lingered in the atmosphere would also have had climatic cooling effects. The questions that the study aimed to answer concerns the relative masses of each gas that would have reached more than 25 km above the Earth to have long-term, global climatic effects and whether the dominant effect on climate was warming or cooling. Both gases would have added the environmental effects of making seawater more acid.

3-D simulation of the Chicxulub crater based on gravity data (credit: Wikipedia)

Such estimates depend on a large number of factors beyond the potential mass of carbonate and sulfate source rocks. For instance: how big the asteroid was; how fast it was travelling and the angle at which it struck the Earth’s surface determine the kinetic energy involved and the impact mechanism. How that energy was distributed between atmosphere, seawater and the sedimentary sequence, together with the pressure-temperature conditions for the dissociation of calcite and anhydrite all need to be accounted for by modelling. Moreover, the computation itself becomes extremely long beyond estimates for the first second or so of the impact. Earlier estimates had been limited by computer speeds to only the first few seconds of the impact and could not allow for other than vertical impacts. The new study, by supercomputers and improved algorithms, used a likely 60° angle of impact, new data on mineral decomposition and simulated the first 15 to 30 seconds. The results suggested that 325 ± 130 Gt of sulfur and 425 ± 160 Gt CO2 were ejected, compared with earlier estimates of 40-560 Gt of sulfur and 350-3,500 Gt of CO2.  The greater proportion of sulfur release to the stratosphere pushes the model decisively towards global cooling, probably over a lengthy period – perhaps centuries. Taking dusts into account implies that visible sunlight would also have been blocked, devastating the photosynthetic base of the global food chain, in the sunlit parts of oceans as well as on land.

But we have to remember that these are the results of a theoretical model. In the same manner as this study has thrown earlier modeling into doubt, more data – and there will be a great many from the Chicxulub drill core itself – and more sophisticated computations may change the story significantly. Also, the other candidate for the mass extinction event, the flood basalt volcanism of the Deccan Traps, and its geochemical effects on the climate have yet to be factored in. The next few lines of Shakespeare’s soliloquy for  Richard III may well emerge from future work

… Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried …

See also: BBC News comment on 31 October 201


The dinosaur they could not kill: Brontosaurus is back

It would be pretty safe to say that everyone has heard of Brontosaurus, but in the 1970s the genus vanished from the palaeobiology lexicon. The ‘Bone Wars’ of post-Civil War US palaeontology stemmed from the astonishing prices that dinosaur skeletons fetched. The frenzy of competition to fill museums unearthed hundreds of specimens, but the financial enthusiasm did not extend to painstaking anatomy. Finding a new genus meant further profit so a slapdash approach to taxonomy might pay well. So it did with the dinosaur family Diplodocidae for Othniel Marsh, one of the fossil marauders. He along with his main competitor, Edward Cope, was a wizard fossicker, but lacked incentive to properly describe what he unearthed. In 1877 Marsh published a brief note about a new genus that he called Apatosaurus, then hurried off to for more booty. Two years later he returned from the field with another monster reptile, and casually made a brief case for the ‘Thunder Lizard’, Brontosaurus. Unlike his usage of ‘Deceptive Lizard’ for Apatosaurus, the English translation of Brontosaurus caught the public imagination and lingers to this day as the archetype for a mighty yet gentle, extinct beast. Yet, professional palaeontologists were soon onto the lax ways of Marsh and Cope, and by 1903 deemed Brontosaurus to be taxonomically indistinguishable from Apatosaurus, and as far as science was concerned the ‘Thunder Lizard’ was no more.

Illustration of a Brontosaurus (nowadays calle...
Artist’s impression of a Brontosaurus . The idea that it was wholly or mostly aquatic is now considered outdated. (credit: Wikipedia)

But, the legacy of frenzied fossil collecting of a century or more ago is huge collections that never made it to display, which form rich pickings for latter-day palaeontologists with all kinds of anatomical tools now at their disposal: the stuff of almost endless graduate studies. Emanuel Tschopp of the New University of Lisbon with colleagues took up the challenge of the Diplodocidae by examining 49 named specimens and 32 from closely related specimens as controls, measuring up to 477 skeletal features (Tschopp, E. et al. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ, v. 3, doi10.771/peerj.857). An unintended consequence was their discovery that 6 specimens of what had become Apatosaurus excelsus (formerly Marsh’s Brontosaurus) differed from all other members of its genus in 12 or more key characteristics. It seems to taxonomists a little unfair that Brontosaurus should not be resurrected, and that looks likely.

Had this been about almost any other group of fossils, with the exception perhaps of the ever-popular tyrannosaurs, the lengthy paper would have passed unnoticed except by specialist palaeontologists. In a little over a week the open-access publication had more than 17 thousand views and 3300 copies were downloaded.

See also: Balter, M. 2015. Bully for Brontosaurus. Science, v. 348, p. 168