Dinosaurs were thriving before asteroid strike that wiped them out

Dinosaurs were unaffected by long-term climate changes and flourished before their sudden demise by asteroid strike.

Scientists largely agree that an asteroid impact, possibly coupled with intense volcanic activity, wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago.

However, there is debate about whether dinosaurs were flourishing before this, or whether they had been in decline due to long-term changes in climate over millions of years.

Previously, researchers used the fossil record and some mathematical predictions to suggest dinosaurs may have already been in decline, with the number and diversity of species falling before the asteroid impact.

Now, in a new analysis that models the changing environment and dinosaur species distribution in North America, researchers from Imperial College London, University College London and University of Bristol have shown that dinosaurs were likely not in decline before the meteorite.

Lead researcher Alessandro Chiarenza, a PhD student in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial, said: “Dinosaurs were likely not doomed to extinction until the end of the Cretaceous, when the asteroid hit, declaring the end of their reign and leaving the planet to animals like mammals, lizards and a minor group of surviving dinosaurs: birds.

“The results of our study suggest that dinosaurs as a whole were adaptable animals, capable of coping with the environmental changes and climatic fluctuations that happened during the last few million years of the Late Cretaceous. Climate change over prolonged time scales did not cause a long-term decline of dinosaurs through the last stages of this period.”

The study, published today in Nature Communications, shows how the changing conditions for fossilisation means previous analyses have underestimated the number of species at the end of the Cretaceous.

The team focused their study on North America, where many Late Cretaceous dinosaurs are preserved, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. During this period, the continent was split in two by a large inland sea.

In the western half there was a steady supply of sediment from the newly forming Rocky Mountains, which created perfect conditions for fossilising dinosaurs once they died. The eastern half of the continent was instead characterised by conditions far less suitable for fossilisation.

This means that far more dinosaur fossils are found in the western half, and it is this fossil record that is often used to suggest dinosaurs were in decline for the few million years before the asteroid strike.

Co-author Dr Philip Mannion, from University College London, commented: “Most of what we know about Late Cretaceous North American dinosaurs comes from an area smaller than one-third of the present-day continent, and yet we know that dinosaurs roamed all across North America, from Alaska to New Jersey and down to Mexico.”

Instead of using this known record exclusively, the team employed ‘ecological niche modelling’. This approach models which environmental conditions, such as temperature and rainfall, each species needs to survive.

The team then mapped where these conditions would occur both across the continent and over time. This allowed them to create a picture of where groups of dinosaur species could survive as conditions changed, rather than just where their fossils had been found.

The team found habitats that could support a range of dinosaur groups were actually more widespread at the end of the Cretaceous, but that these were in areas less likely to preserve fossils.

Furthermore, these potentially dinosaur-rich areas were smaller wherever they occurred, again reducing the likelihood of finding a fossil from each of these areas.


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Materials provided by Imperial College London. Original written by Hayley Dunning. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

500-million-year old worm ‘superhighway’ discovered in Canada

Prehistoric worms populated the sea bed 500 million years ago — evidence that life was active in an environment thought uninhabitable until now, research by the University of Saskatchewan (USask) shows.

The sea bed in the deep ocean during the Cambrian period was thought to have been inhospitable to animal life because it lacked enough oxygen to sustain it.

But research published in the scientific journal Geology reveals the existence of fossilized worm tunnels dating back to the Cambrian period — 270 million years before the evolution of dinosaurs.

The discovery, by USask professor Brian Pratt, suggests that animal life in the sediment at that time was more widespread than previously thought.

The worm tunnels — borrows where worms lived and munched through the sediment — are invisible to the naked eye. But Pratt “had a hunch” and sliced the rocks and scanned them to see whether they revealed signs of ancient life.

The rocks came from an area in the remote Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories in Canada which Pratt found 35 years ago.

Pratt then digitally enhanced images of the rock surfaces so he could examine them more closely. Only then did the hidden ‘superhighway’ of burrows made by several different sizes and types of prehistoric worm emerge in the rock.

Some were barely a millimetre in size and others as large as a finger. The smaller ones were probably made by simple polychaetes — or bristle worms — but one of the large forms was a predator that attacked unsuspecting arthropods and surface-dwelling worms.

Pratt said he was “surprised” by the unexpected discovery.

“For the first time, we saw evidence of large populations of worms living in the sediment — which was thought to be barren,” he said. “There were cryptic worm tunnels — burrows — in the mud on the continental shelf 500 million years ago, and more animals reworking, or bioturbating, the sea bed than anyone ever thought.”

Pratt, a geologist and paleontologist and Fellow of the Geological Society of America, found the tunnels in sedimentary rocks that are similar to the Burgess Shale, a famous fossil-bearing deposit in the Canadian Rockies.

The discovery may prompt a rethink of the level of oxygenation in ancient oceans and continental shelves.

The Cambrian period saw an explosion of life on Earth in the oceans and the development of multi-cellular organisms including prehistoric worms, clams, snails and ancestors of crabs and lobsters. Previously the seas had been inhabited by simple, single-celled microbes and algae.

It has always been assumed that the creatures in the Burgess Shale — known for the richness of its fossils — had been preserved so immaculately because the lack of oxygen at the bottom of the sea stopped decay, and because no animals lived in the mud to eat the carcasses.

Pratt’s discovery, with co-author Julien Kimmig, now of the University of Kansas, shows there was enough oxygen to sustain various kinds of worms in the sea bed.

“Serendipity is a common aspect to my kind of research,” Pratt said. “I found these unusual rocks quite by accident all those years ago. On a hunch I prepared a bunch of samples and when I enhanced the images I was genuinely surprised by what I found,” he said.

“This has a lot of implications which will now need to be investigated, not just in Cambrian shales but in younger rocks as well. People should try the same technique to see if it reveals signs of life in their samples.”

The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


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Amoebae diversified at least 750 million years ago, far earlier than expected

Brazilian researchers have reconstructed the evolutionary history of amoebae and demonstrated that at the end of the Precambrian period, at least 750 million years ago, life on Earth was much more diverse than suggested by classic theory.

The study, which was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation — FAPESP, revealed eight new ancestral lineages of Thecamoebae, the largest group in Amoebozoa. Thecamoebians are known as testates because of their hard outer carapace or shell.

Interpretations of the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and climate change are also affected by the discovery that amoebae are more diverse than previously thought.

In this study, published in the journal Current Biology, researchers affiliated with the University of São Paulo’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP) in Brazil, in partnership with colleagues at the Mississippi State University in the United States, used innovative techniques to reconstruct the phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree of Thecamoeba, which belongs to the order Arcellinida.

The new phylogenetic tree was created using mathematical algorithms and the transcriptomes of 19 arcellinids found in nature today. The researchers also established the morphology and composition of the hypothetical ancestors of this group of amoebae and compared them with the fossil record.

The results showed that at least 750 million years ago, ancestors of the thecamoebians were already evolving. This finding indicates that the late Precambrian was more diverse than previously thought.

“We reached our conclusions using a combination of two major scientific areas — paleontology and phylogenetic systematics, the field within biology that reconstructs evolutionary history and studies the patterns of relationships among organisms. In this way, we were able to untangle one of the knots in evolutionary theory about life on the planet,” said Daniel Lahr, a professor at IB-USP and lead author of the article.

Reclassification of Amoebozoa

The researchers completely dismantled the previous classification of thecamoebians. “We succeeded in developing a robust structure and for the first time, discovered eight deep lineages [from 750 million years ago] of arcellinids about which nothing was known,” Lahr told.

The old thecamoebian classification was based on shell composition. “They were divided into agglutinate and organic. However, from our molecular reconstruction, we discovered that the classification is actually determined by shell shape rather than composition,” Lahr said.

The old classification, he added, had been questioned for several years, but more evidence was needed to demolish it. Previous genetic research has shown that the classification was unsustainable, but not enough data were available to justify a new classification.

“The scientific community suspected that the arcellinid testate amoebae had emerged and evolved sufficiently to diversify some 750 million years ago. We’ve now succeeded in demonstrating this hypothesis,” he said.

Past and future

According to Lahr, the study presents a different view of how microorganisms evolved on the planet. The late Precambrian was considered a period of low biotic diversity, with only a few species of bacteria and some protists.

“It was in this period 800 million years ago that the oceans became oxygenated. For a long time, oxygenation was assumed to have led to diversification of the eukaryotes, unicellular and multicellular organisms in which the cell’s nucleus is isolated by a membrane, culminating in the diversification of macroorganisms millions of years later in the Cambrian,” Lahr said.

The study published in Current Biology, he added, focuses on a detail of this question. “We show that diversification apparently already existed in the Precambrian and that it probably occurred at the same time as ocean oxygenation. What’s more, geophysicists are discovering that this process was slow and may have lasted 100 million years or so,” he said.

However, scientists do not know what pressure triggered this oxygenation. “Regardless of the cause, oxygenation eventually led to more niches, the eukaryotes diversified, and there was more competition for niches. One way to resolve the competition was for some lineages to become larger and hence multicellular,” Lahr said.

The study has also contributed to a better understanding of today’s climate change. “We began to understand in more depth how this microbial life affected the planet in several ways,” Lahr said. “The climate changed in fundamental ways during the period, which saw the occurrence of the Sturtian glaciation some 717 million years ago. This was one of the largest glaciation events ever.”

According to Lahr, these changes may have had biological origins. “By increasing the resolution of how life evolved in the very remote past, we can understand a little better how life affects the planet’s climate and even its geology. That will help us understand the climate changes we’re currently experiencing,” he said.

In rock

In addition to the discovery of greater diversity in the Precambrian, the study also innovates by reconstructing the morphology of the ancestors of thecamoebians to establish that the vase-shaped microfossils (VSMs) found in various parts of the world already existed in the Precambrian and even in the major ice ages that occurred during this era.

VSMs are presumed to be fossils of testate amoebae. They are unicellular and eukaryotic and have an external skeleton. Significant diversity of VSMs has been documented for the Neoproterozoic Era, which spanned between 1 billion and 541 million years ago, and was the terminal era of the Precambrian.

“The study constitutes a very different vision of how microorganisms evolved on the planet. Although the fossils do not contain genetic information, it is possible to obtain morphological and compositional information and to verify whether they are organic or silica-based. So it’s possible to compare their shape and chemical composition, which in this case are especially well preserved, with those of current thecamoebians reconstituted by big data,” said Luana Morais, a postdoctoral researcher with a scholarship from FAPESP and coauthor of the article.

Innovative techniques

In addition to the lack of DNA-containing fossils, the researchers faced another obstacle in reconstructing the phylogenetic tree: thecamoebians cannot be cultured in the laboratory, and genetic sequencing by conventional means is therefore ruled out.

The solution to this problem was to use the single-cell transcriptome technique to analyze phylogenetics (instead of gene expression, its normal application). “We sequenced whole transcriptomes of arcellinid amoebae using live samples,” Lahr explained. “This yielded several thousand genes and some 100,000 amino acid sites, or 100,000 datapoints giving us the phylogenetic tree, which had never been seen before.”

The researchers used transcriptome-based methodology to capture all messenger RNAs from each individual cell and convert them into a sequenceable complementary DNA library.

“Our research drew fundamentally on single-cell transcriptomics, in which our lab is one of the worldwide pioneers,” Lahr said. “It’s a revolutionary technique in this field because it enables us to find a single [unicellular] amoeba, isolate and clean it, and perform all the laboratory procedures to sequence the whole transcriptome.”

In this study, the researchers selected 250 genes to construct the phylogenetic tree. “It’s no good looking at only one cell when you’re studying gene expression, because the resolution will be insufficient,” Lahr said. “In an evolutionary study, however, this doesn’t matter. You need to obtain the sequence, not the number of times a gene is expressed. So it’s possible to use this technique, which was originally developed for tumor cells, and adapt it, with the advantage that an amoeba cell is much larger than a tumor cell.”

Before the technique was developed, only organisms grown in the laboratory could be sequenced. “It extends the range of my research in this field by enabling me to obtain genetic information from organisms I’ve only found once. It’s estimated that only 1% or less of all biodiversity is cultivable,” Lahr said.


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