Mass extinction event triggered dinosaur expansion 232 million years ago
London: A mass extinction event 232 million years ago may have triggered an expansion of dinosaurs, according to a study that sheds light on the origin of the giant prehistoric animals.
It is commonly understood that the dinosaurs disappeared with a bang - wiped out by a great meteorite impact on the Earth 66 million years ago.
However, their origins have been less understood.
In a study, published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from MUSE - Museum of Science, Universities of Ferrara and Padova in Italy and the University of Bristol in the UK showed that the key expansion of dinosaurs was also triggered by a crisis - the mass extinction, called the Carnian Pluvial Episode.
Dinosaurs had originated much earlier, at the beginning of the Triassic Period, some 245 million years ago, but they remained very rare until the shock events in the Carnian 13 million years later.
The study shows when dinosaurs took over by using detailed evidence from rock sequences in the Dolomites, in north Italy - here the dinosaurs are detected from their footprints.
"First there were no dinosaur tracks, and then there were many," researchers said.
This marks the moment of their explosion, and the rock successions in the Dolomites are well dated. Comparison with rock successions in Argentina and Brazil, here the first extensive skeletons of dinosaurs occur, show the explosion happened at the same time there as well.
"We were excited to see that the footprints and skeletons told the same story. We had been studying the footprints in the Dolomites for some time, and it's amazing how clear cut the change from 'no dinosaurs' to 'all dinosaurs' was," said Massimo Bernardi, Curator at MUSE and Research associate at Bristol.
The point of explosion of dinosaurs matches the end of the Carnian Pluvial Episode, a time when climates shuttled from dry to humid and back to dry again.
It was long suspected that this event had caused upheavals among life on land and in the sea, but the details were not clear. Then, in 2015, dating of rock sections and measurement of oxygen and carbon values showed just what had happened.
There were massive eruptions in western Canada, represented today by the great Wrangellia basalts, which drove bursts of global warming, acid rain, and killing on land and in the oceans.
"We had detected evidence for the climate change in the Dolomites. There were four pulses of warming and climate perturbation, all within a million years or so. This must have led to repeated extinctions," said Piero Gianolla, from the University of Ferrara.
"The discovery of the existence of a link between the first diversification of dinosaurs and a global mass extinction is important," said Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol.
"The extinction didn't just clear the way for the age of the dinosaurs, but also for the origins of many modern groups, including lizards, crocodiles, turtles, and mammals - key land animals today," Benton said.