Leaf-mining insects destroyed with the dinosaurs, others quickly appeared

After the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous period that triggered the dinosaurs’ extinction and ushered in the Paleocene, leaf-mining insects in the western United States completely disappeared. Only a million years later, at Mexican Hat, in southeastern Montana, fossil leaves show diverse leaf-mining traces from new insects that were not present during the Cretaceous, according to paleontologists.”Our results indicate both that leaf-mining diversity at Mexican Hat is even higher than previously recognized, and equally importantly, that none of the Mexican Hat mines can be linked back to the local Cretaceous mining fauna,” said Michael Donovan, graduate student in geosciences, Penn State.Insects that eat leaves produce very specific types of damage. One type is from leaf miners — insect larvae that live in the leaves and tunnel for food, leaving distinctive feeding paths and patterns of droppings.Donovan, Peter Wilf, professor of geosciences, Penn State, and colleagues looked at 1,073 leaf fossils from Mexican Hat for mines. They compared these with more than 9,000 leaves from the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, from the Hell Creek Formation in southwestern North Dakota, and with more than 9,000 Paleocene leaves from the Fort Union Formation in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. The researchers present their results in today’s (July 24) issue of PLOS ONE.”We decided to focus on leaf miners because they are typically host specific, feeding on only a few plant species each,” said Donovan. “Each miner also leaves an identifiable mining pattern.”The researchers found nine different mine-damage types at Mexican Hat attributable to the larvae of moths, wasps and flies, and six of these damage types were unique to the site.The researchers were unsure whether the high diversity of leaf miners at Mexican Hat compared to other early Paleocene sites, where there is little or no leaf mining, was caused by insects that survived the extinction event in refugia — areas where organisms persist during adverse conditions — or were due to range expansions of insects from somewhere else during the early Paleocene.However, with further study, the researchers found no evidence of the survival of any leaf miners over the Cretaceous-Paleocene boundary, suggesting an even more total collapse of terrestrial food webs than has been recognized previously.”These results show that the high insect damage diversity at Mexican Hat represents an influx of novel insect herbivores during the early Paleocene and not a refugium for Cretaceous leaf miners,” said Wilf. “The new herbivores included a startling diversity for any time period, and especially for the classic post-extinction disaster interval.”Insect extinction across the Cretaceous-Paleocene boundary may have been directly caused by catastrophic conditions after the asteroid impact and by the disappearance of host plant species. While insect herbivores constantly need leaves to survive, plants can remain dormant as seeds in the ground until more auspicious circumstances occur.The low-diversity flora at Mexican Hat is typical for the area in the early Paleocene, so what caused the high insect damage diversity?Insect outbreaks are associated with a rapid population increase of a single insect species, so the high diversity of mining damage seen in the Mexican Hat fossils makes the possibility of an outbreak improbable.The researchers hypothesized that the leaf miners that are seen in the Mexican Hat fossils appeared in that area because of a transient warming event, a number of which occurred during the early Paleocene.”Previous studies have shown a correlation between temperature and insect damage diversity in the fossil record, possibly caused by evolutionary radiations or range shifts in response to a warmer climate,” said Donovan. “Current evidence suggests that insect herbivore extinction decreased with increasing distance from the asteroid impact site in Mexico, so pools of surviving insects would have existed elsewhere that could have provided a source for the insect influx that we observed at Mexican Hat.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Penn State. The original article was written by A’ndrea Eluse Messer. …

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Big-nosed, long-horned dinosaur discovered in Utah: Dinosaur in same family as Triceratops

July 17, 2013 — A remarkable new species of horned dinosaur has been unearthed in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southern Utah. The huge plant-eater inhabited Laramidia, a landmass formed when a shallow sea flooded the central region of North America, isolating western and eastern portions for millions of years during the Late Cretaceous Period. The newly discovered dinosaur, belonging to the same family as the famous Triceratops, was announced today in the British scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.The study, funded in large part by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Science Foundation, was led by Scott Sampson, when he was the Chief Curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah. Sampson is now the Vice President of Research and Collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Additional authors include Eric Lund (Ohio University; previously a University of Utah graduate student), Mark Loewen (Natural History Museum of Utah and Dept. of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah), Andrew Farke (Raymond Alf Museum), and Katherine Clayton (Natural History Museum of Utah).Horned dinosaurs, or “ceratopsids,” were a group of big-bodied, four-footed herbivores that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period. As epitomized by Triceratops, most members of this group have huge skulls bearing a single horn over the nose, one horn over each eye, and an elongate, bony frill at the rear. The newly discovered species, Nasutoceratops titusi, possesses several unique features, including an oversized nose relative to other members of the family, and exceptionally long, curving, forward-oriented horns over the eyes. The bony frill, rather than possessing elaborate ornamentations such as hooks or spikes, is relatively unadorned, with a simple, scalloped margin. Nasutoceratops translates as “big-nose horned face,” and the second part of the name honors Alan Titus, Monument Paleontologist at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for his years of research collaboration.For reasons that have remained obscure, all ceratopsids have greatly enlarged nose regions at the front of the face. …

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‘Cold snap’ 116 million years ago triggered marine ecosystem crisis

June 16, 2013 — A “cold snap” 116 million years ago triggered a similar marine ecosystem crisis to the ones witnessed in the past as a result of global warming, according to research published in Nature Geoscience.The international study involving experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK, Cologne, Frankfurt and GEOMAR-Kiel, confirms the link between global cooling and a crash in the marine ecosystem during the mid-Cretaceous greenhouse period.It also quantifies for the first time the amplitude and duration of the temperature change. Analysing the geochemistry and micropaleontology of a marine sediment core taken from the North Atlantic Ocean, the team show that a global temperature drop of up to 5oC resulted in a major shift in the global carbon cycle over a period of 2.5 million years.Occurring during a time of high tectonic activity that drove the breaking up of the super-continent Pangaea, the research explains how the opening and widening of new ocean basins around Africa, South America and Europe created additional space where large amounts of atmospheric CO2 was fixed by photosynthetic organisms like marine algae. The dead organisms were then buried in the sediments on the sea bed, producing organic, carbon rich shale in these new basins, locking away the carbon that was previously in the atmosphere.The result of this massive carbon fixing mechanism was a drop in the levels of atmospheric CO2, reducing the greenhouse effect and lowering global temperature.This period of global cooling came to an end after about 2 million years following the onset of a period of intense local volcanic activity in the Indian Ocean. Producing huge volumes of volcanic gas, carbon that had been removed from the atmosphere when it was locked away in the shale was replaced with CO2 from Earth’s interior, re-instating a greenhouse effect which led to warmer climate and an end to the “cold snap.”The research team highlight in this study how global climate is intrinsically linked to processes taking place in Earth’s interior at million year time scales. These processes can modify ecospace for marine life, driving evolution.Current research efforts tend to concentrate on global warming and the impact that a rise of a few degrees might have on past and present day ecosystems. This study shows that if global temperatures swing the other way by a similar amount, the result can be just as severe, at least for marine life.However, the research team emphasise that the observed changes of the Earth system in the Cretaceous happened over millions of years, rather than decades or centennial, which cannot easily be related to our rapidly changing modern climate conditions.”As always it’s a question of fine balance and scale,” explains Thomas Wagner, Professor of Earth Systems Science at Newcastle University, and one of the leaders of this study.”All earth system processes are operating all the time and at different temporal and spatial scales; but when something upsets the balance — be it a large scale but long term natural phenomenon or a short and massive change to global greenhouse gases due to anthropogenic activity — there are multiple, potential knock-on effects on the whole system.”The trick is to identify and quantify the initial drivers and consequences, which remains an ongoing challenge in climate research.”

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