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Sci Tech    H4'ed 4/29/09

Dinosaur Murder Plot Thickens

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Most non-scientists have an unrealistic view of science as some edifice of knowledge that inexorably grows larger and more precise with time and effort. In reality, science is a messy business whose practitioners are often forced to toss out long held dogma after it has become part of the public consciousness. So it is with one of the most popular beliefs about earth’s history, and the fate of the dinosaurs – that a giant meteor struck the earth 65 million years ago, causing a catastrophic mass extinction event and ushering in the age of mammals.

New evidence adds to a growing body of information that points to a very different conclusion. Indeed, ever since its inception by an astrophysicist, many biologists and paleontologists have been skeptical of the idea that a meteor strike could be so selective in its ability to cause extinction. Why would it only kill off all species of larger dinosaurs, and leave many species of smaller mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and bird-like dinosaurs unscathed? Mass extinction events caused by catastrophes are rarely so selective in their culling.

The new evidence uncovered by Dr. Gerta Keller, a Princeton University paleontologist and geologist, puts a date on the Chicxulub crater in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula at 300,000 years too early to be the cause of the so-called K/T (Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary) extinction event. She also found that all 52 species of a certain type of plankton (planktic foraminifera) in the region survived the meteor event. This means that the event was too early, and too small, to be the cause of the K/T extinction.

The theory preferred by a number of biologists and paleontologists, and the theory that I have given the greatest credence to, is that continental movements before and during the extinction event had dramatic effects on the earth’s environment, culminating in the Deccan Traps volcanism which occurred approximately 66 million years ago. This occurred when the Indian subcontinent was moved by plate tectonic forces into the southern edge of the Asian continent, forming the Himalaya mountain range. The Indian sub-continental plate passed under the Asian plate (subduction), and moved into a position over a deep mantle plume (the Réunion hotspot) which then resulted in massive volcanic eruptions that lasted for tens of thousands of years. As much as half of modern day India may have been formed by the lava outflows that occurred at the time.

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The massive release of particulate matter almost certainly reduced global temperatures and altered global weather patterns for tens of thousands of years. The effects on plant and animal life were devastating. However, the Deccan Traps volcanic event may have only been the nail in the coffin for many species already driven to the brink.

It has long been known that the number of species of large dinosaurs was diminishing over a several million year period leading up to the K/T boundary in the geological record. In fact, species from all branches of the plant and animal kingdoms were dying off for thousands of millenia preceding the final extinction event. Even the number of species of ocean-going ammonites declined for millions of years before the final catastrophe. Due to continental drift the earth was undergoing drastic changes in climate, weather and temperature range. Eventually even ocean acidity may have changed substantially due to increased levels of CO2 released by the prolonged volcanic activity. The earth was becoming a place that was no longer hospitable for large dinosaur species, but perfect for smaller bird and mammalian species, which evolved quickly to adapt to the changing conditions. Smaller animals with shorter reproductive cycles can evolve and adapt to changing conditions much more rapidly than large, slowly reproducing species. This is probably why the bird-like dinosaurs did not die off as did their much larger cousins.

So the next time someone asks you who killed the dinosaurs, you can tell them that India is the most likely murder suspect, and that the meteor has been released on its own recognizance.

 

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John R. Moffett PhD is a research neuroscientist in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Moffett's main area of research focuses on the brain metabolite N-acetylaspartate, and an associated genetic disorder known as Canavan disease.

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