The asteroid that killed dinosaurs caused the birth of something great

A cataclysmic asteroid impact set the stage for one of Earth’s most diverse ecosystems.

When an asteroid slammed the Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago, it was bad news for dinosaurs — and about 75 percent of plant and animal life on the planet. This event marks the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary and the fiery end of the Mesozoic Era.

But without this cataclysmic impact, we wouldn’t have the iconic neotropical rainforests that spread across Central and South America today. This finding was published Thursday in the journal Science.

Co-lead author Carlos Jaramillo, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, tells Inverse the event “transformed the evolutionary trajectory of the rainforest forever.”

“The forest that we have today is the byproduct of what happened at that precise time.”

What’s new — This large-scale study represents the culmination of about 14 years of work in Colombia, Jaramillo says. Until this point, what happened to tropical forests in South America after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event was relatively unknown.

The study suggests the end of the Cretaceous was a real turning point in the structure and composition of this environment. What we recognize as a lush, biodiverse tropical rainforest today did not exist before the Paleocene.

Aerial view of part of the Amazon in Colombia. GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP via Getty Image

It also took millions of years for the diversity of the forest to recover after the mass extinction event, which “should be a clear warning against deforestation and the rate at which we are currently intervening on the planet,” says Mónica Carvalho, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and co-lead study author.

Background — Neotropical rainforests are unique environments that have what is called a closed canopy.

“You go to the rainforest today, you realize that there is a green carpet at the top of the trees,” Jaramillo says. “Every single space at the top of the canopy is occupied by a leaf because this is where most of the photosynthesis is happening.”

To figure out what forests looked like in the past, paleobiologists need to consult the record of ancient plant life. Analyzing the structure and composition of forests involves a science called palynology, the study of pollen. Counting and identifying thousands of fossil pollen grains across columns and layers of rock gives an idea of how the composition of plants in an area changed broadly over time.

Pollen examination can also determine the abundance of flowering plants, also called angiosperms, versus other plants that release spores, such as ferns. Leaf fossils are useful for determining if the forest had a closed canopy or not.

How they did it — Unraveling records of terrestrial life in deep time isn’t easy: ancient climate records on land are typically lost to decomposition and erosion. Carvalho, Jaramillo, and 19 other study authors worked for over a decade, doing an enormous amount of fieldwork, searching out pollen and thousands of leaf fossils to figure out how Cretaceous forests were impacted by the extinction event.

The examined leaf and fern fossils. Carvalho et al. Science (2021)

They looked at 39 different sections of rock and analyzed thousands of microscopic pollen grains found in different layers under the microscope. This, plus the thousands of leaf fossils, allowed the researchers to plot changes in the diversity and composition of flora before, during, and after the extinction event.

What they found — Cretaceous rainforests were quite different than the rainforests today, the findings suggest. There was plenty of light, and many gaps in the forest. Neotropical rainforests, the forests we recognize, made their appearance during the Paleocene — but it took another six million years before plant diversity recovered. Before the extinction event, the forests were about half ferns and half angiosperms, but in the new rainforests of the Paleocene, flowering plants rose to dominance.

Why did the forests shift from open to closed canopies across the end of the Cretaceous to the beginning of the Paleocene? Jaramillo says there are potentially three reasons why, and all of these factors could have been happening at the same time.

  • It could have been that dinosaurs, especially large plant-eating ones, ate so much biomass it kept lighting shining through the forest during the Cretaceous.
  • The change in the structure of the environment could have been from an increase in soil nutrients. It is even possible the ash fall from the asteroid impact provided a layer of fertilizer.
  • Angiosperms may have been able to rise to dominance because there was selective extinction of ferns and other non-flowering plants due to their lack of ecological diversity.

Why it matters — Rainforests in Central and South America are some of the most biologically diverse locations on Earth, and this study shows how they got their start. The study also illustrates the fact that major changes to an environment can completely upend an ecosystem. It's an ominous lesson in the age of anthropogenic climate change.

More broadly, this research matters because it makes a critical discovery about deep time in an area of the world, South America, that is often underrepresented in paleontology. Jaramillo says many of the researchers who participated in this study are from Colombia and shows that “if you create a critical mass, we can produce good science.”

Abstract: The end-Cretaceous event was catastrophic for terrestrial communities worldwide, yet its long-lasting effect on tropical forests remains largely unknown. We quantified plant extinction and ecological change in tropical forests resulting from the end-Cretaceous event using fossil pollen (>50,000 occurrences) and leaves (>6000 specimens) from localities in Colombia. Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) rainforests were characterized by an open canopy and diverse plant–insect interactions. Plant diversity declined by 45% at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary and did not recover for ~6 million years. Paleocene forests resembled modern Neotropical rainforests, with a closed canopy and multistratal structure dominated by angiosperms. The end-Cretaceous event triggered a long interval of low plant diversity in the Neotropics and the evolutionary assembly of today’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystem.
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