El estudio de la extinción masiva antigua revela que los dinosaurios se apoderaron de la Tierra en medio del hielo, no del calor

Dinosaurio terópodo emplumado

Con un flujo de lava en la distancia, un dinosaurio terópodo con plumas primitivas se lleva a una víctima de mamífero durante un invierno volcánico nevado causado por erupciones masivas durante la Extinción del Triásico-Jurásico. Un nuevo estudio dice que los dinosaurios sobrevivieron porque ya estaban adaptados a las condiciones de congelación en latitudes altas. Crédito: Pintura de Larry Felder

Prosperando en una serie de escalofríos globales repentinos que mataron a los competidores

Muchos de nosotros estamos familiarizados con la teoría popular de cómo los dinosaurios murieron hace 66 millones de años: en la violenta colisión de la Tierra con un meteorito, seguida de un invierno global causado por el polvo y los escombros que asfixiaron la atmósfera. Pero hubo una extinción anterior mucho más misteriosa y menos discutida: la de hace 202 millones de años, que acabó con los grandes reptiles que hasta entonces gobernaban el planeta, y aparentemente despejó el camino para que los dinosaurios tomaran el control. ¿Qué causó el llamado[{” attribute=””>Triassic–

The telltale indicators are dinosaur footprints along with odd rock fragments that only could have been deposited by ice. The authors of the study explain that during the extinction, cold snaps already happening at the poles spread to lower latitudes, killing off the cold-blooded reptiles. Dinosaurs, which had already adapted, survived the evolutionary bottleneck and spread out. The rest is ancient history.

“Dinosaurs were there during the Triassic under the radar all the time,” said Paul Olsen, a geologist at

Pangaea Supercontinent 202 Million Years Ago

The supercontinent of Pangaea 202 million years ago, shortly before the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction. Evidence of early dinosaurs has been found in the indicated areas; most species were confined to the high latitudes, and those few nearer the tropics tended to be smaller. Red area at the top is the Junggar Basin, now in northwest China. Credit: Olsen et al., Science Advances, 2022

Dinosaurs are thought to have first appeared during the Triassic Period in temperate southerly latitudes about 231 million years ago, when most of the planet’s land was joined together in one giant continent geologists call Pangaea. They made it to the far north by about 214 million years ago. Until the mass extinction at 202 million years, the more expansive tropical and subtropical regions in between were dominated by reptiles including relatives of crocodiles and other fearsome creatures.

During the Triassic, and for most of the Jurassic, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide ranged at or above 2,000 parts per million—five times today’s levels—so temperatures must have been intense. There is no evidence of polar ice caps then, and excavations have shown that deciduous forests grew in polar regions. However, some climate models suggest that the high latitudes were chilly some of the time; even with all that CO2, they would have received little sunlight much of the year, and temperatures would decline at least seasonally. But until now, no one has produced any physical evidence that they froze.

At the end of the Triassic, a geologically brief period of perhaps a million years saw the extinction of more than three-quarters of all terrestrial and marine species on the planet, including shelled creatures, corals and all sizable reptiles. Some animals living in burrows, such as turtles, made it through, as did a few early mammals. It is unclear exactly what happened, but many scientists connect it to a series of massive volcanic eruptions that could have lasted hundreds of years at a stretch. At this time, Pangaea started to split apart, opening what is now the Atlantic Ocean, and separating what are now the Americas from Europe, Africa and Asia. Among other things, the eruptions would have caused atmospheric carbon dioxide to skyrocket beyond its already high levels, causing deadly temperatures spikes on land, and turning ocean waters too

Junggar Basin Shale Cliff

A shale cliff in the Junggar Basin in northwest China, where scientists found ice-rafted pebbles amid otherwise fine-grained sediments. Credit: Paul Olsen/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The authors of the new study cite a third factor: During the eruptions’ fiercest phases, they would have belched sulfur aerosols that deflected so much sunlight, they caused repeated global volcanic winters that overpowered high greenhouse-gas levels. These winters might have lasted a decade or more; even the tropics may have seen sustained freezing conditions. This killed uninsulated reptiles, but cold-adapted, insulated dinosaurs were able to hang on, say the scientists.

The researchers’ evidence: fine-grained sandstone and siltstone formations left by sediments in shallow ancient lake bottoms in the Junggar Basin. The sediments formed 206 million years ago during the Late Triassic, through the mass extinction and beyond. At that time, before landmasses rearranged themselves, the basin lay at about 71 degrees north, well above the Arctic Circle. Footprints found by the authors and others show that dinosaurs were present along shorelines. Meanwhile, in the lakes themselves, the researchers found abundant pebbles up to about 1.5 centimeters across within the normally fine sediments. Far from any apparent shoreline, the pebbles had no business being there. The only plausible explanation for their presence: they were ice-rafted debris (IRD).

Briefly, IRD is created when ice forms against a coastal landmass and incorporates bits of underlying rock. At some point, the ice becomes unmoored and drifts away into the adjoining water body. When it melts, the rocks drop to the bottom, mixing with normal fine sediments. Geologists have extensively studied ancient IRD in the oceans, where it is delivered by glacial icebergs, but rarely in lake beds; the Junggar Basin discovery adds to the scant record. The authors say the pebbles were likely picked up during winter, when lake waters froze along pebbly shorelines. When warm weather returned, chunks of that ice floated off with samples of the pebbles in tow, and later dropped them.

“This shows that these areas froze regularly, and the dinosaurs did just fine,” said study co-author Dennis Kent, a geologist at Lamont-Doherty.

How did they do it? Evidence has been building since the 1990s that many if not all non-avian dinosaurs including tyrannosaurs had primitive feathers. If not for flight, some coverings could have used for mating display purposes, but the researchers say their main purpose was insulation. There is also good evidence that, unlike the cold-blooded reptiles, many dinosaurs possessed warm-blooded, high-metabolism systems. Both qualities would have helped dinosaurs in chilly conditions.

“Severe wintery episodes during volcanic eruptions may have brought freezing temperatures to the tropics, which is where many of the extinctions of big, naked, unfeathered vertebrates seem to have occurred,” said Kent. “Whereas our fine feathered friends acclimated to colder temperatures in higher latitudes did OK.”

The findings defy the conventional imagery of dinosaurs, but some prominent specialists say they are convinced. “There is a stereotype that dinosaurs always lived in lush tropical jungles, but this new research shows that the higher latitudes would have been freezing and even covered in ice during parts of the year,” said Stephen Brusatte, a professor of paleontology and evolution at the University of Edinburgh. “Dinosaurs living at high latitudes just so happened to already have winter coats [while] muchos de sus competidores del Triásico se extinguieron”.

Randall Irmis, curador de paleontología en el Museo de Historia Natural de Utah y especialista en dinosaurios primitivos, está de acuerdo. “Esta es la primera evidencia detallada de las altas paleolatitudes, la primera evidencia de los últimos 10 millones de años del período Triásico y la primera evidencia de condiciones verdaderamente heladas”, dijo. “La gente está acostumbrada a pensar que esto fue un momento en que todo el mundo estaba caliente y húmedo, pero ese no fue el caso”.

Olsen dice que el siguiente paso para comprender mejor este período es que más investigadores busquen fósiles en antiguas áreas polares como la cuenca Junggar. “El registro fósil es muy malo y nadie está haciendo prospecciones”, dijo. “Estas rocas son grises y negras, y es mucho más difícil prospectar [for fossils] en estos estratos. La mayoría de los paleontólogos se sienten atraídos por el Jurásico tardío, donde se sabe que hay muchos esqueletos grandes. El paleo-Ártico es básicamente ignorado”.

Referencia: “El hielo ártico y el ascenso ecológico de los dinosaurios” por Paul Olsen, Jingeng Sha, Yanan Fang, Clara Chang, Jessica H. Whiteside, Sean Kinney, Hans-Dieter Sues, Dennis Kent, Morgan Schaller y Vivi Vajda, 1 de julio 2022, Avances de la ciencia.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abo6342

El estudio fue coautor de Jingeng Sha y Yanan Fang del Instituto de Geología y Paleontología de Nanjing; Clara Chang y Sean Kinney del Observatorio de la Tierra Lamont-Doherty; Jessica Whiteside de la Universidad de Southampton; Hans-Dieter Sues de la Institución Smithsonian; Morgan Schaller del Instituto Politécnico Rensselaer; y Vivi Vajda del Museo Sueco de Historia Natural.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.