Science

Mass extinction event ‘disrupted' ocean ecosystems for millions of years

Scientists have highlighted an asteroid strike's impact on the environment.

The mass extinction event caused by a massive asteroid strike on Planet Earth led to ocean ecosystems being disrupted for millions of years, according to new research.

Scientists examined fossil records spanning 13 million years and found that global species of plankton at the base of the ocean ecosystem were disrupted for two million years and it took a further eight million years for their numbers to recover.

The Cretaceous/Paleogene mass extinction occurred when an asteroid impact caused global environmental devastation 66 million years ago.

The team of scientists, from the universities of Southampton, Bristol, UCL, Frankfurt and California, examined in the study how the ocean ecosystem “rebooted” following the catastrophe.

And they say the research shows how a loss of diversity can impact the effectiveness of the ecosystem.

A spokesman for the University of Southampton said: “It is well known for killing off the dinosaurs, but also laid waste to much smaller creatures, such as ocean plankton – removing crucial food sources from the base of the marine ecosystem which were critical for the recovery of large species.”

Lead author Sarah Alvarez, now of the University of Gibraltar, said: “We looked at the best fossil record of ocean plankton we could find – calcareous nannofossils (they are still around today) and collected 13 million years of information from a sample every 13 thousand years.

“We measured abundance, diversity and cell size from over 700,000 fossils, probably the largest fossil dataset ever produced from one site.”

Paleobiologist and co-lead author Dr Samantha Gibbs explained that the research highlighted the risks posed by diversity loss as is being currently experienced around the world.

She said: “Losing species today runs the risk of eliminating key creatures in ecosystems. What we’ve demonstrated from this fossil record is that function is achieved if you have the right players fulfilling key roles.

“Today, by reducing biodiversity, we are running the risk of losing our critical ecosystem players, many of whose importance we don’t yet fully appreciate.”

The study has been published in the journal Nature.

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