Category Archives: PREHISTORIC FOSSILS

DID FOSSIL OIL KILL OFF THE DINOSAURS?

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What killed the dinosaurs? It’s a question as old as – well the dinosaurs themselves, and one that everyone from school children to scientists have been asking for decades. Movies like Jurassic Park and the Land Before Time only heighten that sense of wonder and raise the stakes behind that question. Now according to a new scientific study, it seems that black gold may have been the source of the dinos’ demise.

Japanese researchers at Tohuku University and the Meteorological Research Institute authored a recent study in the research journal Scientific Reports suggesting that a meteor impact 66 million years ago on an oil rich region of Yucatan Peninsula led to the death of the dinosaurs. When the asteroid hit the vast oil deposits of Mexico, it sent thick black smoke into the atmosphere, changing the climate around the world. That soot blocked out the sun leading to a significant cooling of the planet. Equally importantly, it also led to a substantial drought around the world.

The asteroid in question was roughly 6 miles wide and its impacted created the 110 mile wide crater that exists in the Yucatan today – the third largest crater on Earth. The impact was the equivalent of roughly 1 billion atomic bombs of the equivalent power to what struck Hiroshima at the end of World War 2.

The researchers calculate that the amount of soot released would have lowered sunlight exposure by 85 percent and reduced rainfall by 80 percent. That would have had a significant impact on plant growth, which in turn would have limited food options for most dinosaurs. In addition, the soot cooled the Earth by 16 degrees Celsius (about 28.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the course of just 3 years. Think of the event as the reverse of global warming – and on steroids.

Against this backdrop it is not surprising that dinosaurs all died out. Only smaller mammals that could live underground would have survived. In fact, the fossil record suggests that only 12 percent of the pre-asteroid life was able to survive after the impact. It was not just dinosaurs that died either, contrary to myths about the Ice Age – around 93 percent of mammal species were killed off as well, according to a separate research study by scientists at the University of Bath. The largest animals that would have survived the extinction event were about the size of a house cat.

Still, life bounced back “fairly quickly” researchers say, with about twice as many species existing 300,000 years after the event versus before it. Of course, given that the course of human history only goes back around 25,000 years, three-hundred thousand years is still a long period of time. It reflects the reality that the asteroid strike had a significant enough impact that its effects took tens of thousands of years to dissipate. It was the adaptability of mammals after the strike versus various reptiles that led the mammals to ultimately come to dominate the planet. Dinosaurs were in decline for millions of years before the asteroid strike, but that event aided by the oil rich soil of the Yucatan finished them off.

It’s ironic that oil, so fundamental for modern human life was ultimately the catalyst that wiped out the dinosaurs. Had the asteroid stuck in a less oil rich region, back of the envelope calculations suggest its impact would have only been around one-third as devastating. It’s impossible to say if that would have allowed any of the dinosaurs to live or not, but it is at least a possibility. Perhaps if not for the existence of oil, none of us would have cars, but maybe we would all have a pet brontosaurus.

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Henry Sapiecha

How Titanoboa, the 40-Foot-Long Prehistoric Snake, Was Found

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In the lowland tropics of northern Colombia, 60 miles from the Caribbean coast, Cerrejón is an empty, forbidding, seemingly endless horizon of dusty outback, stripped of vegetation and crisscrossed with dirt roads that lead to enormous pits 15 miles in circumference. It is one of the world’s largest coal operations, covering an area larger than Washington, D.C. and employing some 10,000 workers. The multinational corporation that runs the mine, Carbones del Cerrejón Limited, extracted 31.5 million tons of coal last year alone.

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Cerrejón also happens to be one of the world’s richest, most important fossil deposits, providing scientists with a unique snapshot of the geological moment when the dinosaurs had just disappeared and a new environment was emerging. “Cerrejón is the best, and probably the only, window on a complete ancient tropical ecosystem anywhere in the world,” said Carlos Jaramillo, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “The plants, the animals, everything. We have it all, and you can’t find it anywhere else in the tropics.”

Fifty-eight million years ago, a few million years after the fall of the dinosaurs, Cerrejón was an immense, swampy jungle where everything was hotter, wetter and bigger than it is today. The trees had wider leaves, indicating greater precipitation—more than 150 inches of rain per year, compared with 80 inches for the Amazon now. Mean temperatures may have hovered in the mid- to high-80s Fahrenheit or higher. Deep water from north-flowing rivers swirled around stands of palm trees, hardwoods, occasional hummocks of earth and decaying vegetation. Mud from the flood plain periodically coated, covered and compressed the dead leaves, branches and animal carcasses in steaming layers of decomposing muck dozens of feet thick.

The river basin held turtles with shells twice the size of manhole covers and crocodile kin—at least three different species—more than a dozen feet long. And there were seven-foot-long lungfish, two to three times the size of their modern Amazon cousins.

The lord of this jungle was a truly spectacular creature—a snake more than 40 feet long and weighing more than a ton. This giant serpent looked something like a modern-day boa constrictor, but behaved more like today’s water-dwelling anaconda. It was a swamp denizen and a fearsome predator, able to eat any animal that caught its eye. The thickest part of its body would be nearly as high as a man’s waist. Scientists call it Titanoboa cerrejonensis.

It was the largest snake ever, and if its astounding size alone wasn’t enough to dazzle the most sunburned fossil hunter, the fact of its existence may have implications for understanding the history of life on earth and possibly even for anticipating the future.

Titanoboa is now the star of “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” premiering April 1 on the Smithsonian Channel. Research on the snake and its environment continues, and I caught up with the Titanoboa team during the 2011 field season.

Jonathan Bloch, a University of Florida paleontologist, and Jason Head, a paleontologist at the University of Nebraska, were crouched beneath a relentless tropical sun examining a set of Titanoboa remains with a Smithsonian Institution intern named Jorge Moreno-Bernal, who had discovered the fossil a few weeks earlier. All three were slathered with sunblock and carried heavy water bottles. They wore long-sleeved shirts and tramped around in heavy hiking boots on the shadeless moonscape whose ground cover was shaved away years ago by machinery.

“It’s probably an animal in the 30- to 35-foot range,” Bloch said of the new find, but size was not what he was thinking about. What had Bloch’s stomach aflutter on this brilliant Caribbean forenoon was lying in the shale five feet away.

“You just never find a snake skull, and we have one,” Bloch said. Snake skulls are made of several delicate bones that are not very well fused together. “When the animal dies, the skull falls apart,” Bloch explained. “The bones get lost.”

The snake skull embraced by the Cerrejón shale mudstone was a piece of Titanoboa that Bloch, Head and their colleagues had been hoping to find for years. “It offers a whole new set of characteristics,” Bloch said. The skull will enhance researchers’ ability to compare Titanoboa to other snakes and figure out where it sits on the evolutionary tree. It will provide further information about its size and what it ate.

Even better, added Head, gesturing at the skeleton lying at his feet, “our hypothesis is that the skull matches the skeleton. We think it’s one animal.”

Looking around the colossal mine, evidence of an ancient wilderness can be seen everywhere. Every time another feet-thick vein of coal is trucked away, an underlayer of mudstone is left behind, rich in the fossils of exotic leaves and plants and in the bones of fabulous creatures.

“When I find something good, it’s a biological reaction,” said Bloch. “It starts in my stomach.”

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Henry Sapiecha