The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period wiped out much of life on Earth. And while we know how the story goes, a team of researchers is now adding a new chapter. One defined by flowers. In fact, scientists say that the usual space rock that bathed the earth in the Dino death was precisely what enabled our home planet to first host the lush, flowering rainforests we know today.
The team of researchers working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama set out to decipher how tropical rainforests change after drastic ecological disturbances. Chicxulub Impactor, which wiped out 45% of the plants in what is now Colombia and enveloped the world in darkness, was a perfect opportunity for insight.
Don Davis / NASA
To study the changes, researchers looked at tropical plant fossils from locations in Central and South America; including more than 50,000 pollen fossils and 6,000 leaf fossils from both before and after the impact. By comparison? The team found that the dino killer turned sparse, coniferous tropical rainforests into the denser, higher rainforests of today; the same ones teeming with lively, technicolor bromeliads and dangling orchids.
The researchers described their findings in a study recently published in the journal Science (which comes via BBC News) says that the fossil record implies that the forest canopy in the American tropics evolved from relatively open to closed and layered. In turn, they say this led to an increase in vertical stratification. And therefore a greater diversity of plant growth is formed.
The three key theories that scientists have that explain this shift have to do with both the asteroid’s impact and the absence of dinosaurs. The researchers say the first theory is that dinosaurs kept their forests “open” by feeding and moving through them. The second: that falling ash from the impact enriched tropical soils, giving an advantage to fast-growing flowering plants. And finally, that the preferred extinction of familiar species allowed flowering plants to dominate.
“Our study follows a simple question: How are tropical rainforests evolving?” Monica Carvalho, botanist and lead author of the study, said in an STRI press release. The lesson here is that during rapid disturbances – geologically speaking – tropical ecosystems do not just jump back; they are replaced and the process takes a really long time. ”
Feature image: Kirt Edblom
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