Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Why Big Dinosaurs Steered Clear of the Tropics

16.06.2015

Wild climate swings – persisting tens of millions of years – were too much for the dinos, University of Utah paleontologist and colleagues discover

For more than 30 million years after dinosaurs first appeared, they remained inexplicably rare near the equator, where only a few small-bodied meat-eating dinosaurs eked out a living. The age-long absence of big plant-eaters at low latitudes is one of the great, unanswered questions about the rise of the dinosaurs.


Victor Leshyk

212 million years ago in what is now northern New Mexico, the landscape was dry and hot with common wildfires. Early dinosaurs such as the carnivorous dinosaur in background were small and rare, whereas other reptiles such as the long-snouted phytosaurs and armored aetosaurs were quite common.

And now the mystery has a solution, according to an international team of scientists who pieced together a remarkably detailed picture of the climate and ecology more than 200 million years ago at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico, a site rich with fossils from the Late Triassic Period.

The new findings show that the tropical climate swung wildly with extremes of drought and intense heat. Wildfires swept the landscape during arid regimes and continually reshaped the vegetation available for plant-eating animals.

“Our data suggest it was not a fun place,” says study co-author Randall Irmis, curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah and assistant professor at the University of Utah. “It was a time of climate extremes that went back and forth unpredictably and large, warm-blooded dinosaurian herbivores weren’t able to exist nearer to the equator – there was not enough dependable plant food.”

The study, led by geochemist Jessica Whiteside, lecturer at the University of Southampton, is the first to provide a detailed look at the climate and ecology during the emergence of the dinosaurs. The results are important, also, for understanding human-caused climate change. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels during the Late Triassic were four to six times current levels. “If we continue along our present course, similar conditions in a high-CO2 world may develop, and suppress low-latitude ecosystems,” Irmis says.

The other authors are Sofie Lindström, Ian Glasspool, Morgan Schaller, Maria Dunlavey, Sterling Nesbitt, Nathan Smith and Alan Turner. They report the findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Reconstructing the deep past

The earliest known dinosaur fossils, found in Argentina, date from around 230 million years ago. Within 15 million years, multitudes of species with different diets and body sizes had evolved and were abundant beyond the tropical latitudes. In the tropics, the only dinosaurs present were small carnivores. This pattern persisted for 30 million years after the first dinosaurs appeared.

In the new study, the authors focused on Chinle Formation rocks, which were deposited by rivers and streams between 205 and 215 million years ago at Ghost Ranch (better known to many outside of paleontology as the place where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted for much of her career). The multi-colored rocks of the Chinle Formation are a common sight on the Colorado Plateau at places such as the Painted Desert at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. During the Late Triassic, North America and other land masses of the world were bound together in the supercontinent Pangea. The Ghost Ranch site stood close to the equator at roughly the same latitude as present-day southern India.

The researchers reconstructed the deep past by analyzing several kinds of data: fossils, charcoal left by ancient wildfires, and stable isotopes from organic matter and carbonate nodules that formed in ancient soils. “Each dataset complements the others, and they all point towards similar conditions,” Whiteside says. “I think this is one of the major strengths of our study.”

Fossilized bones, pollen grains and fern spores revealed the types of animals and plants living at different times, marked by layers of sediment. Dinosaurs remained rare among the fossils, accounting for less than 15 percent of vertebrate animal remains. They were outnumbered in diversity, abundance and body size by the reptiles known as Pseudosuchian archosaurs, the lineage that gave rise to crocodiles and alligators.

The sparse dinosaurs consisted mostly of small, carnivorous theropods. Big, long-necked dinosaurs, or sauropodomorphs – already the dominant plant-eaters at higher latitudes – did not exist at the study site or any other low-latitude site in Triassic Pangaea, as far as the fossil record shows.

Abrupt changes in climate left a record in the shifting abundance of different types of pollen and fern spores between sediment layers. Fossilized organic matter from decaying plants provided another window on climate shifts. Changes in the ratio of stable isotopes of carbon in the organic matter bookmarked times when plant productivity declined during extended droughts.

Drought and fire

Wildfire burn temperatures varied drastically, the researchers found, consistent with a fluctuating environment in which the amount of combustible plant matter rose and fell over time. The researchers estimated the intensity of wildfires using bits of charcoal recovered in the sediment layers. The amount of light reflected from the fossil charcoal under a light microscope relates directly to the burn temperature of the wood. The overall picture, the authors say, is that of a climate punctuated by extreme shifts in precipitation in which plant die-offs fueled hotter fires, which in turn killed more plants, damaged soils and increased erosion.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, calculated from stable isotope analyses of soil carbonate and preserved organic matter, rose from about 1,200 parts per million at the base of the section, to about 2,400 parts per million near the top. At these high CO2 concentrations, climate models predict more frequent and more extreme weather fluctuations consistent with the fossil and charcoal evidence.

Continuing shifts between extremes of dry and wet likely prevented the establishment of dinosaur-dominated communities found in the fossil record at higher-latitudes across South America, Europe and southern Africa, where aridity and temperatures were less extreme and humidity was consistently higher. Resource-limited conditions could not support a diverse community of fast-growing, warm-blooded, large dinosaurs, which require a productive and stable environment to thrive.

“The conditions would have been something similar to the arid western United States today, although there would have been trees and smaller plants near streams and rivers and forests during humid times,” says Whiteside. “The fluctuating and harsh climate with widespread wild fires meant that only small two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs, such as Coelophysis, could survive.”

####

The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation. Other funding was provided by Richard Salomon Foundation, National Geographic Society Committee for Research & Exploration, University of California Museum of Paleontology, University of Utah, Grainger Foundation, Dyson Foundation, and Field Museum Women's Board – Geocenter Denmark.

Fieldwork was conducted with the permission and support of the Ghost Ranch Conference Center.

Contact Information
-- Randall Irmis, assistant professor and curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah – office 801-585-0561, mobile 510-847-5335, irmis@umnh.utah.edu
-- Joe Rojas-Burke, senior science writer – office 801-585-6861, mobile 503-896-1079, joe.rojas@utah.edu
-- Patti Carpenter, Natural History Museum of Utah director of public relations – office 801-585-6369, pcarpenter@nhmu.utah.edu
-- For interview opportunities with lead author Jessica Whiteside, lecturer at the University of Southampton, contact Steven Williams, +44-023-8059-2128, S.Williams@soton.ac.uk

Randall Irmis | newswise
Further information:
http://unews.utah.edu/

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht NASA examines newly formed Tropical Depression 3W in 3-D
26.04.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht Early organic carbon got deep burial in mantle
25.04.2017 | Rice University

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Millions through license revenues

27.04.2017 | Health and Medicine

The TU Ilmenau develops tomorrow’s chip technology today

27.04.2017 | Information Technology

Scientist invents way to trigger artificial photosynthesis to clean air

26.04.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>