|Figure 1: (A) "Dryophyllum" subfalcatum, (B) unknown nonmonocot, |
(C) "Ficus" planicostata, (D) "Populus" nebrascensis
As of now, it is widely accepted that an epic asteroid collision ended the 135 million year reign of the dinosaurs. The Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (KPB) extinction event is marked by the Chicxulub (CHEEK-sheh-loob) impact on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. This asteroid or comet is estimated to have been about 6 miles (10 km), releasing as much energy as 100 trillion tons of TNT that caused a crater more can 110 miles (180 km) across! This impact coincides with a mass extinction event that includes the dinosaurs. Dramatic climate swings caused by the dust kicked up into the atmosphere were likely the culprit behind many of these extinctions. Before we go further, take a second to think about what you know about this extinction event. You probably think of the mass die-off of the dinosaurs and the subsequent rise of the mammals, right? But, as I have in the past, I’ll now pose a question: What about the plants?
A new paper published yesterday in PLOS Biology asks just that question. We know that in temperate North America the Chicxulub impact resulted in the extinction of over 50 percent of the plant species. From an evolutionary and ecological stand-point, that’s a lot of competitors that were taken out of the game. However, the environment was dramatically altered as well, changing to a cold and dark “impact winter.” Combined, these factors created a unique selection scenario for certain ecological strategies. The new paper takes a close look at the functional traits associated with these strategies.
The researchers measured fossil leaf assemblages spanning a 2.2 million year interval across the KPB, assessing four differing selection scenarios for functional traits. First, wrap your head around the concept of “functional traits.” These are characteristics that define species in terms of their ecological roles. In the case of leaves, these include leaf mass per area (LMA; Do you make a big, expensive leaf or a light, cheap one?) and leaf minor vein density (VD; Do you have more veins to transport lots of water?), among many others. Because leaves are the food producers, these traits are linked to plant growth and fitness. Next, you can relate these traits to the “leaf economic spectrum” (LES) that contrasts species with inexpensive short-lived leaves with fast returns on carbon and nutrients (deciduous, angiosperm, broadleaf) to costly long-lived leaves with slow returns (coniferous, gymnosperm, evergreen). The former is typically selected for in a less resource variable environment and vice versa. From this, you can get a more global perspective on changes in species composition.
The researchers measured LMA and VD for fossil leaf assemblages spanning the KPB. To do this they digitally photographed specimens that could be measured and confidently reconstructed. Then they used Photoshop to digitally separate the leaf from its rock matrix. For LMA they used ImageJ to calculate leaf area and petiole width, and then ran these numbers through empirical scaling functions (a.k.a. equations). For VD, they used a MATLAB line-counting program to isolate the veins and then manually counted the number of vein-line intersections, computing the mean distance between veins as the sum of all line counts divided by the sum of all distances (a.k.a. a slightly less complicated equation). They ran a few scenarios to account for site and region plant specificity as well.
They found LMA to decrease and VD to increase across this time period. Even changes just these two traits reflect large physiological and biological shifts in plant functioning over a relatively short period of time. According to their data, the Chicxulub impact led to the selective extinction of species with slow strategies. This caused a directional selection away from evergreen species along with a stabilizing selection of deciduous angiosperms. The authors pose a few hypotheses in their discussion that are worth mentioning. The higher observed VD in angiosperms, and their ensuing selection, could have been driven by declining atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), which selects for higher hydraulic capacity. This CO2 hypothesis would, of course, not really hold water (no pun intended) for nonangiosperms and shade species, but the authors suggest that the observed increase in VD is more likely to be a direct consequence of the impact selecting for specific leaf economic strategies rather than ongoing-longer term climate change.
In this case, slow and steady did not win the race.
Blonder B, Royer DL, Johnson KR, Miller I, & Enquist BJ (2014). Plant Ecological Strategies Shift Across the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary. PLoS biology, 12 (9) PMID: 25225914
(image via above citation)