University of Arizona researchers discovered that the meteor that hit the Yucatan Peninsula about 66 million years ago not only killed off the dinosaurs, but shaped the plants we now know. Recently published in PLOS Biology, their paper “Plant Ecological Strategies Shift Across the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary” states that the extinction event that was responsible for killing off about 3/4 animal and plant species present at the time, also created conditions in which some plants were able to quickly adapt and these have become our modern-day vegetation.
Evergreen, flowering plants were a major casualty of the impact, while deciduous trees rapidly developed survival strategies. The remnants of this event is visible today, with very few remaining species of plants that are both evergreen and produce flowers, while deciduous species dominate our forests. Per lead author, Benjamin Blonder, “If you think about a mass extinction caused by catastrophic event such as a meteorite impacting Earth, you might imagine all species are equally likely to die. Survival of the fittest doesn’t apply — the impact is like a reset button. The alternative hypothesis, however, is that some species had properties that enabled them to survive.”
The research team examined over 1,00o specimens of fossilized plants from the Hell Creek formation in North Dakota. The data they collected illustrates evidence of a major shift from slow-growing to fast growing species. This may mean that the extinction was not random; the way a plant acquires necessary resources may determine how it will respond to major disturbance. The enormous amount of dust created by the meteor’s impact significantly lowered the average temperature on the planet, leading to an extreme winter, which, seemingly, deciduous plants were better equipped to bear. The hypothesis behind this result is that the variable climate produced favored those species which were able to quickly adapt and take advantage of changing conditions.
This research can have implications for forest and agriculture management, facing changes again, we may look to plants which can quickly adapt for more sustainable food and forest products. To view the full text of the article visit: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001949