Two of the greatest mass extinctions of species on Earth occurred at the end of the Permian geological period. Such was the magnitude that 86% of all animal species were wiped out in the extinction that took place 252 million years ago. The event also marked the start of a new era where the population of terrestrial reptiles exploded rapidly. Until now, scientists believed that the increase in the number of reptiles and their evolution was due to the extinction of their competitors. But, a new study indicates that global warming, rather than mass extinction, was behind a boom in reptile population and diversity.
Researchers from the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University have revealed that the evolution of reptiles began much earlier than previously thought.
“We found that these periods of rapid evolution in reptiles were intimately linked to rising temperatures. Some groups changed very quickly and others less rapidly, but almost all reptiles evolved much faster than they expected. ‘had never done before’, said postdoctoral fellow Tiago R Simoes. He is also the lead author of the study published in Scientists progress.
The team examined early amniotes which represent the precursors to all modern mammals like birds, reptiles and their closest extinct relatives. They created a dataset using an extensive first-hand data collection of over 1,000 fossil specimens of 125 species of synapsids, reptiles and their close relatives for approximately 140 million years before the mass extinction of the Permian-Triassic. Following this, they analyzed the data and tried to detect the origin of these species and the rate at which they evolved.
The new dataset was then compared to global temperature data from millions of years ago in the geological record.
The researchers observed that periods of rapid climate change and global warming were linked to the rapid anatomical change of most reptiles as they adapted to changing environmental conditions.
The team also looked at the change in body size of the reptiles over this period. They noted that the climatic pressure on the body was extremely high due to which there was a maximum body size for the reptiles that could survive in the tropics during the hot period.
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