Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mammals: Strength Through Diversity

When it comes to adapting to climate change, diversity is the mammal's best defense.

That is one of the conclusions of the first study of how mammals in North America adapted to climate change in "deep time" – a period of 56 million years beginning with the Eocene and ending 12,000 years ago with the terminal Pleistocene extinction when mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths and most of the other "megafauna" on the continent disappeared.

"Before we can predict how mammals will respond to climate change in the future, we need to understand how they responded to climate change in the past," said Larisa R. G. DeSantis, the assistant professor of earth and environmental studies at Vanderbilt who directed the study. "It is particularly important to establish a baseline that shows how they adapted before humans came on the scene to complicate the picture."

Establishing such a baseline is particularly important for mammals because their ability to adapt to environmental changes makes it difficult to predict how they will respond. For example, mammals have demonstrated the ability to dramatically alter their size and completely change their diet when their environment is altered. In addition, mammals have the mobility to move as the environment shifts. And their ability to internally regulate their temperature gives them more flexibility than cold-blooded organisms like reptiles.

The study, which was published on Apr. 23 in the journal PLoS ONE, tracked the waxing and waning of the range and diversity of families of mammals that inhabited the continental United States during this extended period. In taxonomy, species are groups of individuals with common characteristics that (usually) can mate; genera are groups of species that are related or structurally similar and families are collections of genera with common attributes.

Scientists consider the fossil record of mammals in the U.S. for the study period to be reasonably complete. However, it is frequently impossible to distinguish between closely related species based on their fossil remains and it can even be difficult to tell members of different genera apart. Therefore the researchers performed the analysis at the family level. They analyzed 35 different families, such as Bovidae (bison, sheep, antelopes); Cricetidae (rats, mice, hamsters, voles); Equidae (horses, donkeys); Ursidae (bears); Mammutidae (mammoths); and Leporidae (rabbits and hares).

The study found that the relative range and distribution of mammalian families remained strikingly consistent throughout major climate changes over the past 56 million years. This period began with an extremely hot climate, with a global temperature about six degrees hotter than today (too hot for ice to survive even at the poles) and gradually cooled down to levels only slightly higher than today. It was followed by a dramatic temperature drop and a similarly abrupt warming and finished off with the Ice Ages that alternated between relatively cold glacial and warm interglacial periods.

"These data clearly show that most families were extremely resilient to climate and environmental change over deep time," DeSantis said.

Horses were consistently the most widely distributed family from the Eocene to the Pliocene (and remained highly dominant, just not number one, in the Pleistocene). In contrast, families with more restricted ranges maintained lower range areas. Thus, their work demonstrates that mammals maintained similar niches through deep time and is consistent with the idea that family members may inherit their ranges from ancestral species. The idea that niches are conserved over time is a fundamental assumption of models that predict current responses of mammals to climate change.

The analysis also found a link between a family's diversity and its range: Family's with the greater diversity were more stable and had larger ranges than less diverse families.

"Diversity is good. The more species a family has that fill different niches, the greater its ability to maintain larger ranges regardless of climate change," said DeSantis.

While most families during certain periods of time yielded either gains in species/genera (e.g., Oligocene to Miocene) or losses (Miocene to Pliocene), these changes were remarkably consistent through time with overall gains or losses in one genera typically yielding a gain or loss in of about two species.

Although the extent of family ranges remained relatively constant, the study found that these ranges moved south and east from the Eocene to the Pleistocene. That is most likely a response to the general climate cooling that took place during the period. However, southeastern movement of ranges from the Pliocene to the Pleistocene may also be complicated by the influx of South American animals when the Isthmus of Panama was formed. This triggered a tremendous exchange of species that has been labeled "The Great American Interchange." As a result, some of the southern movement of families' ranges may have been due to the influx of South American mammals, like the sloth and armadillo, moving north, the researchers cautioned.

The study also looked for evidence that families containing megafauna or other species that went extinct during the terminal Pleistocene extinction (also known as the Quaternary or Ice Age extinction) might have been in decline beforehand, but failed to find any evidence for any such "extinction prone" families. If climate change was the culprit, DeSantis and her team expect to see differences between families containing megafauna and those composed of smaller animals. However, the fact that they didn't find such evidence cannot completely rule out this possibility.

Link here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strange and Fascinating Ordovician Fossil Found

Around 450 million years ago, shallow seas covered the Cincinnati region and harbored one very large and now very mysterious organism. Despite its size, no one has ever found a fossil of this "monster" until its discovery by an amateur paleontologist last year.

The fossilized specimen, a roughly elliptical shape with multiple lobes, totaling almost seven feet in length, will be unveiled at the North-Central Section 46th Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, April 24, in Dayton, Ohio. Participating in the presentation will be amateur paleontologist Ron Fine of Dayton, who originally found the specimen, Carlton E. Brett and David L. Meyer of the University of Cincinnati geology department, and Benjamin Dattilo of the Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne geosciences faculty.

Fine is a member of the Dry Dredgers, an association of amateur paleontologists based at the University of Cincinnati. The club, celebrating its 70th anniversary this month, has a long history of collaborating with academic paleontologists.

"I knew right away that I had found an unusual fossil," Fine said. "Imagine a saguaro cactus with flattened branches and horizontal stripes in place of the usual vertical stripes. That's the best description I can give."

The layer of rock in which he found the specimen near Covington, Kentucky, is known to produce a lot of nodules or concretions in a soft, clay-rich rock known as shale.

"While those nodules can take on some fascinating, sculpted forms, I could tell instantly that this was not one of them," Fine said. "There was an 'organic' form to these shapes. They were streamlined."

Fine was reminded of streamlined shapes of coral, sponges and seaweed as a result of growing in the presence of water currents.

"And then there was that surface texture," Fine said. "Nodules do not have surface texture. They're smooth. This fossil had an unusual texture on the entire surface."

For more than 200 years, the rocks of the Cincinnati region have been among the most studied in all of paleontology, and the discovery of an unknown, and large, fossil has professional paleontologists scratching their heads.

"It's definitely a new discovery," Meyer said. "And we're sure it's biological. We just don't know yet exactly what it is."

To answer that key question, Meyer said that he, Brett, and Dattilo were working with Fine to reconstruct a timeline working backward from the fossil, through its preservation, burial, and death to its possible mode of life.

"What things had to happen in what order?" Meyer asked. "Something caused a directional pattern. How did that work? Was it there originally or is it post-mortem? What was the burial event? How did the sediment get inside? Those are the kinds of questions we have."

It has helped, Meyer said, that Fine has painstakingly reassembled the entire fossil. This is a daunting task, since the large specimen is in hundreds of pieces.

"I've been fossil collecting for 39 years and never had a need to excavate. But this fossil just kept going, and going, and going," Fine said. "I had to make 12 trips, over the course of the summer, to excavate more material before I finally found the end of it."

Even then he still had to guess as to the full size, because it required countless hours of cleaning and reconstruction to put it all back together.

"When I finally finished it was three-and-a-half feet wide and six-and-a-half feet long," Fine said. "In a world of thumb-sized fossils that's gigantic!"

Meyer, co-author of A Sea without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region, agreed that it might be the largest fossil recovered from the Cincinnati area.

"My personal theory is that it stood upright, with branches reaching out in all directions similar to a shrub," Fine said. "If I am right, then the upper-most branch would have towered nine feet high. "

As Meyer, Brett and Dattilo assist Fine in studying the specimen, they have found a clue to its life position in another fossil. The mystery fossil has several small, segmented animals known as primaspid trilobites attached to its lower surface. These small trilobites are sometimes found on the underside of other fossilized animals, where they were probably seeking shelter.

"A better understanding of that trilobite's behavior will likely help us better understand this new fossil," Fine said.

Although the team has reached out to other specialists, no one has been able to find any evidence of anything similar having been found. The mystery monster seems to defy all known groups of organisms, Fine said, and descriptions, even pictures, leave people with more questions than answers.

The presentation April 24 is a "trial balloon," Meyer said, an opportunity for the team to show a wide array of paleontologists what the specimen looks like and to collect more hypotheses to explore.

hmmm. Uber sized, late surviving Ediacaran? hmm.

Link is here because the new interface of blogger sucks.

Los Alamos of the 1940s

Friday, April 20, 2012

A New Study of the Ordovician Mass Extinction

The second-largest mass extinction in Earth's history coincided with a short but intense ice age during which enormous glaciers grew and sea levels dropped. Although it has long been agreed that the so-called Late Ordovician mass extinction—which occurred about 450 million years ago—was related to climate change, exactly how the climate change produced the extinction has not been known. Now, a team led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has created a framework for weighing the factors that might have led to mass extinction and has used that framework to determine that the majority of extinctions were caused by habitat loss due to falling sea levels and cooling of the tropical oceans.

The work—performed by scientists at Caltech and the University of Wisconsin, Madison—is described in a paper currently online in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers combined information from two separate databases to overlay fossil occurrences on the sedimentary rock record of North America around the time of the extinction, an event that wiped out about 75 percent of marine species alive then. At that time, North America was an island continent geologists call Laurentia, located in the tropics.

Comparing the groups of species, or genera, that went extinct during the event with those that survived, the researchers were able to figure out the relative importance of several variables in dictating whether a genus went extinct during a 50-million-year interval around the mass extinction.

"What we did was essentially the same thing you'd do if confronted with a disease epidemic," says Seth Finnegan, postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and lead author of the study. "You ask who is affected and who is unaffected, and that can tell you a lot about what's causing the epidemic."

As it turns out, the strongest predictive factors of extinction on Laurentia were both the percentage of a genus's habitat that was lost when the sea level dropped and a genus's ability to tolerate broader ranges of temperatures. Groups that lost large portions of their habitat as ice sheets grew and sea levels fell, and those that had always been confined to warm tropical waters, were most likely to go extinct as a result of the rapid climate change.

"This is the first really attractive demonstration of how you can use multivariate approaches to try to understand extinctions, which reflect amazingly complex suites of processes," says Woodward Fischer, an assistant professor of geobiology at Caltech and principal investigator on the study. "As earth scientists, we love to debate different environmental and ecological factors in extinctions, but the truth is that all of these factors interact with one another in complicated ways, and you need a way of teasing these interactions apart. I'm sure this framework will be profitably applied to extinction events in other geologic intervals."

The analysis enabled the researchers to largely rule out a hypothesis, known as the record-bias hypothesis, which says that the extinction might be explained by a significant gap in the fossil record, also related to glaciation. After all, if sea levels fell and continents were no longer flooded, sedimentary rocks with fossils would not accumulate. Therefore, the last record of any species that went extinct during the gap would show up immediately before the gap, creating the appearance of a mass extinction.

Finnegan reasoned that this record-bias hypothesis would predict that the duration of a gap in the record should correlate with higher numbers of extinctions—if a gap persisted longer, more groups should have gone extinct during that time, so it should appear that more species went extinct all at once than for shorter gaps. But in the case of the Late Ordovician, the researchers found that the duration of the gap did not matter, indicating that a mass extinction very likely did occur.

"We have found that the Late Ordovician mass extinction most likely represents a real pulse of extinction—that many living things genuinely went extinct then," says Finnegan. "It's not that the record went bad and we just don't recover them after that."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Alaskan Hadrosaurs Stayed Through the Winter

Duck-billed dinosaurs that lived within Arctic latitudes approximately 70 million years ago likely endured long, dark polar winters instead of migrating to more southern latitudes, a recent study by researchers from the University of Cape Town, Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas and Temple University has found.

The researchers published their findings, "Hadrosaurs Were Perennial Polar Residents," in the April issue of the journal The Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology. The study was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Anthony Fiorillo, a paleontologist at the Museum of Nature and Science, excavated Cretaceous Period fossils along Alaska's North Slope. Most of the bones belonged to Edmontosaurus, a duck-billed herbivore, but some others such as the horned dinosaur Pachyrhinosaurus were also found.

Fiorillo hypothesized that the microscopic structures of the dinosaurs' bones could show how they lived in polar regions. He enlisted the help of Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian, an assistant professor of earth and environmental science, who had both expertise and the facilities to create and analyze thin layers of the dinosaurs' bone microstructure.

Another researcher, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, a professor of zoology at the University of Cape Town, was independently pursuing the same analysis of Alaskan Edmontosaurus fossils. When the research groups discovered the similarities of their studies, they decided to collaborate and combine their data sets to provide a larger sampling. Half of the samples were tested and analyzed at Temple; the rest were done in South Africa.

"The bone microstructure of these dinosaurs is actually a record of how these animals were growing throughout their lives," said Tumarkin-Deratzian. "It is almost similar to looking at tree rings."

What the researchers found was bands of fast growth and slower growth that seemed to indicate a pattern.

"What we found was that periodically, throughout their life, these dinosaurs were switching how fast they were growing," said Tumarkin-Deratzian. "We interpreted this as potentially a seasonal pattern because we know in modern animals these types of shifts can be induced by changes in nutrition. But that shift is often driven by changes in seasonality."

The researchers questioned what was causing the dinosaurs to be under stress at certain times during the year: staying up in the polar region and dealing with reduced nutrition during the winter or migrating to and from lower latitudes during the winter.

They did bone microstructure analysis on similar duck-billed dinosaur fossils found in southern Alberta, Canada, but didn't see similar stress patterns, implying that those dinosaurs did not experience regular periodic seasonal stresses. "We had two sets of animals that were growing differently," said Tumarkin-Deratzian.

Since the Alaska fossils had all been preserved in the same sedimentary horizon, Fiorillo examined the geology of the bonebeds in Alaska where the samples were excavated and discovered that these dinosaurs had been preserved in flood deposits.

"They are very similar to modern flood deposits that happen in Alaska in the spring when you get spring melt water coming off the Brooks Mountain Range," said Fiorillo. "The rivers flood down the Northern Slope and animals get caught in these floods, particularly younger animals, which appear to be what happened to these dinosaurs.

"So we know they were there at the end of the dark winter period, because if they were migrating up from the lower latitudes, they wouldn't have been there during these floods," he said.

There's not a lot of endotherms of size in the very northern latitudes that winter over.

Another Northern Lights Video

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Did the Great Unconformity Cause the Cambrian Explosion?

The oceans teemed with life 600 million years ago, but the simple, soft-bodied creatures would have been hardly recognizable as the ancestors of nearly all animals on Earth today.

Then something happened. Over several tens of millions of years – a relative blink of an eye in geologic terms – a burst of evolution led to a flurry of diversification and increasing complexity, including the expansion of multicellular organisms and the appearance of the first shells and skeletons.

The results of this Cambrian explosion are well documented in the fossil record, but its cause – why and when it happened, and perhaps why nothing similar has happened since – has been a mystery.

New research shows that the answer may lie in a second geological curiosity – a dramatic boundary, known as the Great Unconformity, between ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks and younger sediments.

"The Great Unconformity is a very prominent geomorphic surface and there's nothing else like it in the entire rock record," says Shanan Peters, a geoscience professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who led the new work. Occurring worldwide, the Great Unconformity juxtaposes old rocks, formed billions of years ago deep within the Earth's crust, with relatively young Cambrian sedimentary rock formed from deposits left by shallow ancient seas that covered the continents just a half billion years ago.

Named in 1869 by explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell during the first documented trip through the Grand Canyon, the Great Unconformity has posed a longstanding puzzle and has been viewed – by Charles Darwin, among others – as a huge gap in the rock record and in our understanding of the Earth's history.

But Peters says the gap itself – the missing time in the geologic record – may hold the key to understanding what happened.

In the April 19 issue of the journal Nature, he and colleague Robert Gaines of Pomona College report that the same geological forces that formed the Great Unconformity may have also provided the impetus for the burst of biodiversity during the early Cambrian.

"The magnitude of the unconformity is without rival in the rock record," Gaines says. "When we pieced that together, we realized that its formation must have had profound implications for ocean chemistry at the time when complex life was just proliferating."

"We're proposing a triggering mechanism for the Cambrian explosion," says Peters. "Our hypothesis is that biomineralization evolved as a biogeochemical response to an increased influx of continental weathering products during the last stages in the formation of the Great Unconformity."

Peters and Gaines looked at data from more than 20,000 rock samples from across North America and found multiple clues, such as unusual mineral deposits with distinct geochemistry, that point to a link between the physical, chemical, and biological effects.

During the early Cambrian, shallow seas repeatedly advanced and retreated across the North American continent, gradually eroding away surface rock to uncover fresh basement rock from within the crust. Exposed to the surface environment for the first time, those crustal rocks reacted with air and water in a chemical weathering process that released ions such as calcium, iron, potassium, and silica into the oceans, changing the seawater chemistry.

The basement rocks were later covered with sedimentary deposits from those Cambrian seas, creating the boundary now recognized as the Great Unconformity.

Evidence of changes in the seawater chemistry is captured in the rock record by high rates of carbonate mineral formation early in the Cambrian, as well as the occurrence of extensive beds of glauconite, a potassium-, silica-, and iron-rich mineral that is much rarer today.

The influx of ions to the oceans also likely posed a challenge to the organisms living there. "Your body has to keep a balance of these ions in order to function properly," Peters explains. "If you have too much of one you have to get rid of it, and one way to get rid of it is to make a mineral."

The fossil record shows that the three major biominerals – calcium phosphate, now found in bones and teeth; calcium carbonate, in invertebrate shells; and silicon dioxide, in radiolarians – appeared more or less simultaneously around this time and in a diverse array of distantly related organisms.

The time lag between the first appearance of animals and their subsequent acquisition of biominerals in the Cambrian is notable, Peters says. "It's likely biomineralization didn't evolve for something, it evolved in response to something – in this case, changing seawater chemistry during the formation of the Great Unconformity. Then once that happened, evolution took it in another direction." Today those biominerals play essential roles as varied as protection (shells and spines), stability (bones), and predation (teeth and claws).

Together, the results suggest that the formation of the Great Unconformity may have triggered the Cambrian explosion.

I'll post a link to the paper later.