Forget the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that famously wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs – the Great Dying, 252 million years ago, was far worse. Up to 90 percent of all life on Earth, including almost all seafaring life, went extinct after a series of volcanic eruptions, oceanographic catastrophes, and rapid climate change rocked the planet. In fact, it was this event that ultimately led to the rise of the dinosaurs.
The horror didn’t just stop with the mass extinction, however. Scientists have long thought that it took around 10-20 million years for life on Earth to recover and for speciation rates to return to normal.
However, an explosive new study in the journal Science Advances suggests that we’ve been underestimating biology for some time now, and that the planet returned to “normal” within just 1.3 million years – 10 to 20 times faster than previously thought.
The study began when a teenager in southeastern Idaho found a fossilized shark tooth in an undisturbed foothill. This was to be the first of a treasure trove of similar fossils, all of which were dated to be around 250 million years old – no more than a mere 2 million years after the extinction rate peaked during the Great Dying.
Fast forward 10 years to around 2007, and professional paleontologists began to swarm on the previously undiscovered site. Now, in the present day, the teenager that first made the discovery is now a doctoral student at Montana State University, and he’s been working with others at Utah Valley University to uncover more than 750 individual fossil fragments from the foothill.
Not only are they all pretty much 250 million years old, but they are remarkable in their biodiversity. The Paris Biota, as the extinct creatures are now known (named after a nearby canyon), include shellfish, sponges, algae, fishes, cephalopods (squid-like shelled creatures) and underwater creepy crawlies.
Idaho back then was awash with a rich diversity of species, including sharks. solarseven/shutterstock
During and shortly after the Great Dying took place, Idaho was on the coastline of the supercontinent Pangea, facing in this case towards the vast ocean of Panthalassa. If you were to go back in time, this submarine environment would resemble a contemporary, thriving coral reef, bustling and flourishing with all kinds of lifeforms.
“Overall, the Paris Biota illustrates a diversified and trophically complete marine ecosystem, from primary producers up to top predators and potential scavengers,” the authors write in their paper.
Clearly, life found a way to rebound after the worst cataclysm in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year-old history – something to give us optimism considering that our own species has been engineering the next big mass extinction event for some time now.
[H/T: The New York Times]