Sixty-five million years ago, the Earth was pummeled with an extinction event that wiped out a significant amount of terrestrial and marine organisms. Not even microscopic marine plankton were safe from the extinction event.
But a new study is shedding light on how some deep sea organisms managed to survive while others were in their death throes.
“A rapid collapse in surface to deep-ocean carbon isotope gradients suggests that transfer of organic matter to the deep sea via the biological pump was severely perturbed,” wrote a team of researchers led by Cardiff University in Geology. “However, this view has been challenged by the survival of deep-sea benthic organisms dependent on surface-derived food.”
The new study suggests that some bacteria and algae managed to survive the extinction event, and continuously trickled down to ocean floor, allowing deep-sea creatures to beat out other organisms when it came to surviving during this catastrophic period.
The team used fossilized shells from sea surface and seafloor organisms, found in the southeast Atlantic and dated to the period in question, to make the conclusion.
“We conclude that the biological pump was weakened as a consequence of marine extinctions, but less severely and for a shorter duration (maximum 1.77 million years) than has previously been suggested,” the researchers wrote.
Previous studies indicated the recovery time was almost double the new estimate.
Many scientists believe that a 110 km-wide asteroid, which struck Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, was responsible for the extinction event. The resulting debris cut the Earth off from the sun’s energy, according to Cardiff University, and ushered in a period of darkness. Almost half the Earth’s species disappeared during this time period. Subsequently, the Earth’s atmosphere may have filled with sulfur trioxide clouds, which rained sulfuric acid and heavily affected the sea surface.
“Our results show that despite a wave of massive and virtually instantaneous extinctions among the plankton, some types of photosynthesizing organisms, such as algae and bacteria, were living in the aftermath of the asteroid strike,” said Heather Birch, of Cardiff’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, in a statement.
This answers “one of the outstanding questions that still remained regarding this period of history,” she added.
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