The asteroid impact 66 million years ago that ushered in a mass extinction and ended the dinosaurs also killed off many of the plants that they relied on for food. Fossil leaf assemblages from Patagonia, Argentina, suggest that vegetation in South America suffered great losses but rebounded quickly, according to an international team of researchers.
“Every mass extinction event is like a reset button, and what happens after that reset depends on which organisms survive and how they shape the biosphere,” said Elena Stiles, a doctoral student at the University of Washington who completed the research as part of her master’s thesis at Penn State. “All the biodiversity that we observe today is related to the organisms that made it past the last big reset 66 million years ago.”
Stiles and her colleagues examined more than 3,500 leaf fossils collected at two sites in Patagonia to identify how many species from the geologic period known as the Cretaceous survived the mass extinction event into the Paleogene period. Although plant families in the region fared well, the scientists found a surprising species-level extinction rate that may have reached as high as 92 % in Patagonia, higher than previous studies have estimated for the region.
The scientists examined more than 3,500 fossils to identify survivor pairs - plants that grew in both the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. The two fossils on the left are from the Cretaceous, and the two on the right are from the Paleogene.