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Mass extinction event shows how life responds to extreme changes

A recent study from USC Dornsife has unveiled startling new insights into one of Earth’s most devastating mass extinction events. 

The research not only deepens our understanding of the catastrophic end-Triassic mass extinction but also offers vital lessons for addressing today’s environmental challenges.

The end-Triassic catastrophe

Approximately 200 million years ago, the Earth underwent its fourth major mass extinction event, marking the end of the Triassic period and the dawn of the Jurassic era. 

This catastrophic event, triggered by a dramatic surge in greenhouse gases from volcanic activity, led to rapid global warming and a profound transformation of the planet’s biosphere. 

Today, as scientists grapple with the potential of a current mass extinction driven by similar climate changes, this historical event becomes increasingly significant.

The ecospace framework

The USC Dornsife team adopted an innovative “ecospace framework” method to analyze the impact of this extinction on both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. This approach categorizes animals beyond mere species classification, considering their ecological roles and behaviors. 

Study senior author Professor David Bottjer emphasized the importance of understanding how different species’ roles in the ecosystem evolved through this catastrophic period.

“We wanted to understand not just who survived and who didn’t, but how the roles that different species played in the ecosystem changed,” said Professor Bottjer. “This approach helps us see the broader, interconnected ecological picture.”

Diverse impacts

The study revealed a stark contrast in the impacts on marine versus terrestrial ecosystems. While ocean life experienced a significant loss, with nearly 71% of genera vanishing, the marine ecosystem structure displayed remarkable resilience. 

Land ecosystems faced a bleaker scenario, with a staggering 96% of terrestrial genera going extinct, reshaping Earth’s landscape dramatically.

“This contrast between land and sea tells us about the different ways ecosystems respond to catastrophic events,” said co-lead author Alison Cribb. “It also raises important questions about the interplay of biodiversity and ecological resilience.”

Learning from ancient climate change

“Understanding past mass extinctions helps us to predict and possibly soften the impacts of current and future environmental crises,” said co-lead author Kiersten Formoso.

The parallels between the rapid global warming of the end-Triassic and today’s climate changes are striking. 

“We’re seeing similar patterns now – rapid climate change, loss of biodiversity. Learning how ecosystems responded in the past can inform our conservation efforts today,” said Professor Bottjer.

The research also provides a rare window into the world as it existed over 200 million years ago, he added. “It’s like a time machine, giving us a glimpse of life during a period of profound change.”

A fresh perspective 

The study’s ecospace framework, with its focus on functional roles, offers a fresh perspective on ancient life, said Professor Frank Corsetti.

“It’s not just about identifying fossils. It’s about piecing together the puzzle of ancient ecosystems and how they functioned.”

Future research

The team plans to expand this research to explore species recovery post-extinction and the parallels with current biodiversity loss due to climate change. 

“We’ve just scratched the surface,” said Cribb. “There’s so much more to learn about how life on Earth responds to extreme changes, and this new ecospace framework offers great potential for helping us do that.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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