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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

How much can late Permian ecosystems tell us about modern Earth? A lot

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December 15, 2017 Field Museum Read full ScienceDaily article here

New paleontological research shows that during the late Permian, the equator was dry and desert-like, yet surprisingly a hotspot for biodiversity. Similarly to modern rainforests, equator ecosystems were home to a unique diversity of species, including those both anciently and newly evolved. After the late Permian extinction, this diversity was decimated, and the climate change event that triggered an extinction back then is informative as we move forward with protecting our planet’s species diversity.

….In a paper published in Earth-Science Reviews, paleontologists studied fossil sites all over the world from the late Permian to get an idea of what lived where. They found an unusual assortment of species near the equator, and one that is comparable to the modern tropics — except that the array of large, carnivorous reptiles would look very out of place anywhere on Earth today.

….This unequaled comparison of Permian climate and species distribution to modern events shows us that while many changes are natural and we see them throughout our planet’s history, drastic changes like this can be triggered by something much larger — volcanic activity likely caused this in the Permian, and human activity is the suspected culprit today. After the Permian extinction, “it was almost as though the slate had been wiped clean, and all the ecosystems had to rebuild,” says Peecook. This event altered life permanently and while new animals evolved and thrived, the process of recovery took millions of years, and the animals that were lost never returned.

“If we want to know how Earth’s systems work, what’s expected and what’s normal, we need to look to the past,” and the fossil record is the best measure of ecosystem stability. As we already begin to face extinctions and carbon levels similar to those before the Permian extinction, examining these patterns over time gives us the evidence we need to measure and minimize our impact on climate, preventing further permanent damage to our planet’s ecosystems and animals…

Bernardi, M et al. Late Permian (Lopingian) terrestrial ecosystems: A global comparison with new data from the low-latitude Bletterbach Biota. Earth-Science Reviews, 2017; 175: 18 DOI: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2017.10.002

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