Prehistoric Fire Fossils Reveals More Information About Dinosaur Extinction

Jun 07, 2014 08:05 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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Archaeologists have discovered that forests, as far back as 66 million years ago, recovered from fires the same way they do today.

The first fossil-record evidence of forest fire ecology in Canada, revealing a "snapshot" of the ecology on Earth just before the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, according to a team of researchers from McGill University and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Researchers also discovered evidence that the region's climate was a lot warmer and wetter than it currently is today.

"Excavating plant fossils preserved in rocks deposited during the last days of the dinosaurs, we found some preserved with abundant fossilized charcoal and others without it. From this, we were able to reconstruct what the Cretaceous forests looked like with and without fire disturbance," said Hans Larsson, Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution at McGill University, according to a university press release.

The discovery showed that at the forest fire site, the plants are dominated by flora similar to the kind that started forest recovery after a fire today.

Ancient forests handled fires much like current forests, with plants like alder, birch, and sassafras present in early stages before making room for sequoia and ginkgo trees.

"We were looking at the direct result of a 66-million-year old forest fire, preserved in stone," said Emily Bamforth, of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the study's first author, according to the release. "Moreover, we now have evidence that the mean annual temperature in southern Saskatchewan was 10-12 degrees Celsius warmer than today, with almost six times as much precipitation."

Researchers were able to use plant fossils for the first time to determine what kind of climate the dinosaurs lived in before they disappeared, possibly providing some insight into the current extinction theory.

"The abundant plant fossils also allowed us for the first time to estimate climate conditions for the closing period of the dinosaurs in southwestern Canada, and provides one more clue to reveal what the ecology was like just before they went extinct," said Larsson, who is also an Associate Professor at the Redpath Museum.

The findings were published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

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