Sixty six million years ago, a global catastrophe extinguished the non-avian dinosaurs. This is common knowledge. It’s also too narrow a view. Various forms of life disappeared in the same geologic instant – from coil-shelled ammonites to some forms of mammal – and others, for reasons as yet unknown, survived.
Plants are among the neglected of the victims and survivors. A magnolia tree does not hold the same cultural cachet as Tyrannosaurus. The post-impact “fern spike” is often cited as a symbol of wide-ranging devastation, but, outside technical journals, that’s about the extent of our attention span for paleoflora. That’s a shame. If we’re going to understand how life on Earth was so deeply wounded 66 million years ago, and how it bounced back, we should be looking more closely at the prehistoric garden.
Hot on the heels of a review summarizing the global dinosaurian picture at the end of the Cretaceous, Lund University paleobotanists Vivi Vajda and Antoine Bercovici have now assembled a view of how plants were affected by the Earth’s fifth mass extinction. Prehistoric pollen and spores tell the story.
The advantage of looking at fossil pollen, Vajda and Bercovici write, is that there’s plenty of it. That’s not only because plants produce large amounts of the reproductive material, but because pollen is also incredibly durable. If you want to see who’s living where, and how environments change through time, these microscopic plant fossils are good way to do it.
In some ways, the story of the Cretaceous plants echoes what paleontologists have found among other forms of life. The Cretaceous world was a highly-dynamic one marked by fluctuating sea levels, the further breakup of continents, and the formation of new mountain ranges. All this moving and shuffling created evolutionary pockets where new species could evolve in relative isolation, becoming restricted to their particular province. Plants proliferated and evolved according to these boundaries just as dinosaurs did.
Each of the pollen provinces, outlined by Vajda and Bercovici, have their own distinctive profile. In northern North America, Asia, and a few spots in South America, Late Cretaceous sediments commonly contain Aquilapollenites – pollen thought to have come from a group of plants closely related to the modern sandalwood. A neighboring province – stretching from eastern North America to the Himalayas – is dominated by pollen from a Cretaceous birch relative, while rocks from the same time in northern South America, central Africa, and India are rife with pollen from palms. Rounding out the set, a southern hemisphere swath has plenty of pollen from plants related to southern beeches and shrubs.
These were not the only plants to exist in those areas, of course, but their pollen broadly delineates differentiated patches. Paleobotanists can zoom in from there, and, as with dinosaurs, the best-studied sites on the planet document the end of the Cretaceous through the beginning of the Paleogene in western North America.
The forests that Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops knew were dominated by angiosperms – flowering plants – with some conifers, ferns, ginkgos, and cycads for good measure. Palm trees stood alongside evergreens and towered above a shrubby understory in these Late Cretaceous forests. In the aftermath of the impact 66 million years ago, however, those forests were replaced by a relatively small collection of angiosperms, a shadow of the diversity that the Edmontosaurus and kin knew.
Plants suffered extinctions just as many other forms of life did. In fact, some of them dwindle to nothing right at the K-Pg boundary are called “K-species” or “K-taxa.” In the pollen record of North America, for example, the sandalwood relative and a suite of species in seven other genera give way to species in just two genera. Overall, about 60% of plant species present in Cretaceous North America went extinct. The rest of the globe reflects a similar pattern, albeit with different species. Many pollen-producing plants either went entirely extinct or became much less abundant.
Clues from the earliest days of the Paleogene track how plant life eventually bounced back. While sites in New Zealand preserve a “fungal spike” from when mushrooms and their ilk thrived on decomposing matter under blacked-out skies, the subsequent “fern spike” records when pioneering plants – primarily ferns – quickly spread as sunlight began to return. The angiosperms, as well as some conifers, followed, but with fewer species than before. Depending on the location, plant life took between one and ten million years to recover to pre-extinction levels of diversity.
As with the animals, though, why some plants went extinct and others persisted is a mystery. Perhaps some were simply lucky enough to grow in places that were less affected by the devastation following the asteroid strike. Then again, Vajda and Bercovici point out, some researchers have suggested that plants carrying additional sets of chromosomes – or were polyploid – might have had the genetic flexibility to more quickly adapt after ecological shock.
Discerning what made a survivor isn’t just an exercise in replaying ancient history, though.
Vajda and Bercovici argue that two previous mass extinctions – roughly 251 and 200 million years ago – follow a similar pattern of a highly-diverse flora being pruned back, followed by crisis species, pioneer communities, and ecosystem recovery in sequence. Which left me to wonder if we’re going to see this pattern again. If we’re not yet in a Sixth Extinction, we’re close, and identifying likely survivors verses vulnerable species is an essential part of conservation triage. By sifting through the past, down to the tiniest pollen grain, we can reflect on what sort of future we want to create.
Vajda, V., Bercovici, A. 2014. The global vegetation pattern across the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction interval: A template for other extinction events. Global and Planetary Change. doi: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2014.07.014