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. It Took More than One Punch To KO the Dinos

Cottonmouth Creek waterfall over the event deposit with reworked Chicxulub impact spherules. The original Chicxulub ejecta layer was discovered in a yellow clay layer 45 cm below the base of the event deposit. The yellow clay represents a cheto smectite clay consisting of altered Chicxulub impact glass spherules. Credit: GSA
by Staff Writers
Boulder CO (SPX) Oct 25, 2006
There's growing evidence that the dinosaurs and most their contemporaries were not wiped out by the famed Chicxulub meteor impact, according to a paleontologist who says multiple meteor impacts, massive volcanism in India, and climate changes culminated in the end of the Cretaceous Period.

The Chicxulub impact may, in fact, have been the lesser and earlier of a series of meteors and volcanic eruptions that pounded life on Earth for more than 500,000 years, say Princeton University paleontologist Gerta Keller and her collaborators Thierry Adatte from the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, and Zsolt Berner and Doris Stueben from Karlsruhe University in Germany.

A final, much larger and still unidentified impact 65.5 million years ago appears to have been the last straw, exterminating two thirds of all species in one of the largest mass extinction events in the history of life. It's that impact - not Chicxulub - which left the famous extraterrestrial iridium layer found in rocks worldwide that marks the impact that finally ended the Age of Reptiles.

"The Chicxulub impact could not have caused the mass extinction," says Princeton University paleontologist Gerta Keller, "because this impact predates the mass extinction and apparently didn't cause any extinctions."

Keller presented that evidence at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Philadelpha. The results of her research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was discussed in two technical sessions and a public lecture sponsored by the Philadelphia Geological Survey.

Marine sediments drilled from the Chicxulub crater itself, as well as from a site in Texas along the Brazos River, and from outcrops in northeastern Mexico reveal that Chicxulub hit Earth 300,000 years before the mass extinction. Small marine animal microfossils were left virtually unscathed, says Keller.

"In all these localities we can analyze the marine microfossils in the sediments directly above and below the Chicxulub impact layer and cannot find any significant biotic effect," said Keller. "We cannot attribute any specific extinctions to this impact." No one has ever published this critical survival story before, she said. Keller's research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The story that seems to be taking shape is that Chicxulub, though violent, actually conspired with the prolonged and gigantic eruptions of the Deccan Flood Basalts in India, as well as with climate change, to nudge species towards the brink. They were then shoved over with a second large impact.

The Deccan volcanism did the nudging by releasing vast amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over a period of more than a million years leading up to the mass extinction. By the time Chicxulub struck, the oceans were already 3-4 degrees warmer, even at the bottom, she says.

"On land it must have been 7-8 degrees warmer," says Keller. "This greenhouse warming is well documented. The temperature rise was rapid, over about 20,000 years, and it stayed warm for about 100,000 years, then cooled back to normal well before the mass extinction."

Marine species at the time suffered from the heat. Most adapted to the stress conditions by dwarfing, growing less than half their normal size and reproducing rapidly with many offspring to increase the chances for survival. The Chicxulub impact coincided with this time. By the time climate cooled back to normal, most tropical species were on the brink of extinction. Then the second large impact hit and pushed them over the brink - many straight to extinction.

As for how the dinosaurs were affected, that's a bit harder to say specifically, since dinosaurs did not leave a lot of fossils behind to tell the tale.

"Dinosaur fossils are few and far between," Keller said. "People love the dinosaurs but we can only really study what happened to them by looking at microfossils because these little critters are everywhere at all times. In just a pinch of sediment we can tell you the age, the prevailing climate, the environment in which it was deposited and what happened. It's remarkable."

What the microfossils are saying is that Chicxulub probably aided the demise of the dinosaurs, but so did Deccan trap volcanism's greenhouse warming effect and finally a second huge impact that finished them off. So where's the crater?

"I wish I knew," said Keller. "There is some evidence that it may have hit in India, where a crater of about 500 kilometers in diameter is estimated and named Shiva by paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee from the Museum of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The evidence for it, however, is not very compelling at this time."

earlier related report
New Theory For Mass Extinctions
A new theory on just what causes Earth's worst mass extinctions may help settle the endless scientific dust-up on the matter. Whether you favor meteor impacts, volcanic eruptions, cosmic rays, epidemics, or some other cause for the worst mass extinction events in Earth's history, no single cause has ever satisfied all scientists all the time for any extinction event. That may be because big extinctions aren't simple events.

The new Press/Pulse theory gets around the controversy by rejecting the all-or-nothing approach to mass extinction, calling instead on a combination of deadly sudden catastrophes - "pulses" - with longer, steadier pressures on species - "presses."

"What we wanted to do is move away from the idiosyncratic approach to extinction mechanisms and look for what these intervals had in common. If you have A and B you will get a mass extinction," said Ian West, a 2006 graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY.

West and Hobart and William Colleges paleontology professor Nan Crystal Arens are scheduled to present their work on the Press/Pulse theory on Wednesday, 25 October, at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Philadelphia.

Using databases that chart genera of marine organisms and their extinctions through the fossil record, West and Arens divided the last 488 million years of geologic history into four groups: times of suspected impact events (Pulses), times of massive volcanic eruptions (Presses), times when neither Presses nor Pulses occurred, and times when Press and Pulse coincided. They compared average extinction rates in geologic stages in each of these groups.

During stages when only impacts occurred, an average of 7.3% of genera became extinct every million years; 8.3% of genera became extinct in stages characterized by flood volcanism alone. When neither Press nor Pulse were active, 8.2% of genera became extinct. These averages are statistically indistinguishable. "Statistically speaking, extinction rates are not significantly higher at times of impact or volcanism vs. no geologic events," West said.

In contrast, when Press and Pulse events coincided, an average of 12.8% of genera became extinct per million years, statistically higher than the rate observed during other geologic stages.

"The goal of our work was to come up with a unifying theory of mass extinctions. We also wanted to make it applicable to what's going on now," said West, referring to rapid losses of biodiversity worldwide now underway as a result of climate change and destruction of habitats by human activities.

"Is this model, which seems to work for the big five mass extinction events in Earth's history, applicable today?" West asked.

At first glance the answer would appear to be 'no.' There is, after all, no massive flood basalt eruption underway today, nor have there been any recent meteor impacts. On the other hand, some very similar effects are being seen on Earth.

"We came up with the idea that humans themselves act as both Press and a Pulse," said West. "Humans began manipulating the environment - the Press - from the advent of agriculture. However, that alone did not trigger the current mass extinction. That seems to have been triggered by the pulse of industrialization and the demands for energy and resources that came with it."

The bottom line, says West is that it's extremely hard to pinpoint simple causes for Earth's great periods of extinction.

"We sought to rephrase the question," said Arens. "In the modern world, species are commonly endangered by some stress before the final death blow falls. It seems likely that biological systems in the past worked in similar ways. By demonstrating that the coincidence of long-term stress and catastrophic disturbance is needed to produce big extinctions, we hope to break down some of the polarization characteristic of many discussions of extinction. We hope to send people back to the data with a more inclusive hypothesis to test."

Related Links
Geological Society of America
Darwin Today At TerraDaily.com

Trotting With Emus To Walk With Dinosaurs
Laramie WY (SPX) Oct 25, 2006
One way to make sense of 165-million-year-old dino tracks may be to hang out with emus, say paleontologists studying thousands of dinosaur footprints at the Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite in northern Wyoming. Because they are about the same size, walk on two legs and have similar feet, emus turn out to be the best modern version of the enigmatic reptiles that once trotted along a long-lost coastline in the Middle Jurassic.

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