[News] Data discoveries in palaeontology

A 19th-century fossil hunter is in the news because of a romantic movie based on her life. Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, tells the story of Mary Anning. Many of Anning’s finds are in the Natural History Museum in London. These include an ichthyosaur, a plesiosaur and a pterosaur!

Anning worked out of doors with spades and trowels. These days a palaeontologist is just as likely to work indoors with databases. Databases make it possible to see the patterns in thousands of fossil samples.

A team at the Tropical Research Institution in Panama recently looked at more than 50,000 fossilised pollen records and 6,000 leaf fossils. They wanted to see how the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs affected forests in South America.

They found that conifers and ferns were common before the strike but that afterwards flowering plants came to dominate. Forest recovery took six million years and there was a 45 percent drop in plant diversity.

Data has also helped researchers to learn more about the movement of herbivorous dinosaurs on the supercontinent of Pangea. Scientists had long wondered why some dinosaurs took around 15 million years to move from southern to northern Pangea. Data suggests that the dinosaurs’ move north coincided with a drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide. This climatic change reduced the dryness of a desert belt region, making it possible for animals to cross.

Last but not least, data has enabled scientists to figure out the role of volcanoes in the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Visit phys.org to find out more.

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