Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Maniraptoran Dinosaurs Show No Decline In Disparity Before Mass Extinction

Its hard to unravel and unpack complex phenomenon like patterns of faunal turnover during mass  extinctions. The methods chosen, the materials (fossils) available for study and the granularity of the study influences the results.

My last post was about a modeling study that concluded that for 40 million years before the mass extinction,  extinction rates exceeded the evolution of new species in many dinosaur lineages. Dinosaur diversity was declining towards the end of  the Cretaceous. Only a few herbivorous dinosaurs showed an increase in diversity.

Now a different study by Derek W. Larson, Caleb M. Brown , David C. Evans published in Current Biology focuses on just one sub group  of dinosaurs and comes to a different conclusion. This is an analysis of over 3000 teeth  of bird-like maniraptoran dinosaurs from 18 stratigraphic units in Western N. America which shows that there was no decline in disparity in different maniraptoran lineages for the last 18 million years before the mass extinction. The maniraptors were largely omnivorous but may have included specialized carnivorous and as well as herbivorous species.

Disparity is a measure of the range of variation of morphology, in this case teeth shape. This in turn is something of a proxy for the range of ecologic niches being exploited.

The authors remark-

Overall, these inferred ecomorphological patterns indicate that toothed maniraptorans, including toothed birds, were ecologically diverse and stable leading up to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, at least in North America.

An interesting angle explored  in the paper is why toothed bird-like maniraptors and some lineages of toothed birds died out, while their physiologically and morphologically close relatives, the ancestors of modern birds, the Neornithes,  survived the mass extinction.

In the fallout of the bolide impact that marks the end of the Cretaceous, terrestrial food webs that relied on photosynthesis would have collapsed. However, seed banks derived from plants, including relatively abundant angiosperms, could have been a common, nutrient-rich resource that would have persisted among the detritus, which itself has been suggested as a key food source related to species survival across the boundary. With clearing of vegetation, either during a global firestorm or widespread burning of dead ground cover, exposed seeds in these areas worldwide could have been exploited by granivores. This pattern is observed in modern fire succession communities, where granivorous birds are the first avians to re-occupy disturbed habitats due to food resource accessibility. A persistent seed bank, which can remain viable for more than 50 years in modern temperate forests, most likely outlasted the catastrophic ecosystem collapse caused by a bolide impact and associated infrared thermal pulse, acid rain, darkness, and impact winter. Toothed maniraptorans, with their feeding systems adapted to faunivorous or potentially folivorous diets, would have been restricted to food chains dependent on living plant matter and unable to access these seed banks. Therefore, dietary specialization toward granivory in some lineages of crown group birds may have been one of the key factors in their survival through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

Although very similar to maniraptors, the Neornithes had evolved a unique dietary specialization. The presence of a beak, which served as a crushing apparatus, may have helped these ancestors of modern birds exploit seeds as a food source.

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