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Plants more resilient than animals through mass extinctions

By Nicola Temple


The fossil record suggests that a diversity of land plants had evolved by about 472 million years ago (mya). There is evidence to suggest that plants made the move onto land as much as 700 mya [1], placing them in the midst of the five largest extinction events to have shaped life on our planet.

Researchers from the University of Gothenburg released a study earlier this year showing that plants have generally been more resilient to these extinction events than animals. They looked at more than 20,000 plant fossils to see how these mass extinction events affected plant diversity [2].

Ferns and horsetails dominated the
landscape by the end of the Devonian.
Credit: Nicola Temple
They found, not unexpectedly, that each group of plants fared differently through each extinction event – with some doing better than others. Though plants might experience mass extinctions, the researchers concluded that plants also began to diversify again quickly after such events, so that more new species were being generated than were being lost.

"In the plant kingdom, mass extinction events can be seen as opportunities for turnover leading to renewed biodiversity," said leading author Daniele Silvestro.

The big five

Scientists have identified five mass extinction events since land plants have evolved.

Ordovician – Silurian mass extinction (approximately 443 mya): This event wiped out approximately 85% of sea-dwelling creatures, such as trilobites. It has been hypothesised that a huge ice sheet in the southern hemisphere led to the alteration of climate patterns, a drop in the sea-level and a change in ocean chemistry.

Late Devonian (approximately 359 mya): This event is likely a series of smaller extinction events that happened over several million years, but the end result was a loss of 75% of all species on Earth. Changes in sea level, multiple asteroid impacts and new plants that were changing the soil chemistry have all been attributed to this period of extinction.

Permian (approximately 248 mya): It is estimated that 96% of all species were wiped out during this mass extinction. Marine creatures were badly affected and it is the only extinction thought to have had an impact on insects. Hypotheses as to what led to the demise of so many creatures have included combinations of asteroid impacts, volcanic activity, methane releases and decreased oxygen levels.

Triassic – Jurassic (approximately 200 mya): A mere fifty million years after the Permian extinction, about fifty percent of life was wiped out again. Plants seem to have been largely unaffected by this extinction event, but many of the marine reptiles were lost as well as large amphibians and cephalopod molluscs. Large scale volcanic activity and asteroid impacts have both been credited for these extinctions.

This dinosaur can still be spotted in the Evolutionary Dell
at the Botanic Garden! Credit: Nicola Temple
Cretaceous – Paleogene (approximately 65 mya): This extinction event is well known for the loss of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs and ammonites. The prevailing theory for this extinction is the impact of a large asteroid off the coast of Yucatán, Mexico and the subsequent fall-out effects.

While each of these mass extinction events meant the widespread loss of species, they also opened up opportunities for diversification and new species. Had the dinosaurs not gone extinct, for example, mammals would likely not have diversified, compromising our own lineage as humans. Flowering plants experienced extensive diversification after the Cretaceous – Paleogene event and they remain a dominant group today.

The key to resistence might be in duplicate DNA

The Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis)
on display at the Botanic Garden has fossils
dating back 200 million years.
Credit: Nicola Temple
The majority of plants have undergone one or more duplication events where an exact copy of their entire genome is created. This is known as polyploidy – multiple copies of the same genome. Bread wheat, as an example, is hexaploid as it has six sets of chromosomes. Research has shown that one of these doubling events coincides with the Cretaceous – Paleogene mass extinction, approximately 65 million years ago[3].

An extra set of chromosomes could be quite convenient during a prolonged period of stress, such as a massive asteroid strike and its subsequent effects.  Polyploids might be better equipped to resist harmful mutations or perhaps take on mutations that offer a selective advantage under new conditions. Polyploidy plants also tend to be self-fertilising or asexual reproducers, which would be another advantage at a time when finding a partner for breeding could be limited.

Looking forward to a time of inevitable change

The theory that polyploidy confers an advantage during times of change can be witnessed in today’s extreme environments. There is evidence from the Arctic that polyploid plants are more successful than diploid plants at colonising habitats left by receding glaciers [3].

The Evolution of Land Plants Display at the Botanic Garden
(wrapped up for winter) is a walk through time.
Credit: Nicola Temple
Looking into extreme and changing habitats, such as the Arctic, as well as back into the fossil record can give us some indications of which plant groups may be more resilient to the changing climate we are currently experiencing.

You can take a walk through time in the University of Bristol Botanic Garden’s Evolution of Land Plants Display. There you will see living representatives from the groups of land plants that lived from the Cambrian to the Cretaceous, including unusual plants like Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) with fossils dating back 200 million years.

References:

[1] ‘First land plants and fungi changed Earth’s climate, paving the way for explosive evolution of land animals, new gene study suggests’, Penn State Science < http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2001-news/Hedges8-2001.htm>
[2] Silvestro D, Cascales-Miñana B, Bacon CD, Antonelli A (2015). Revisiting the origin and diversification of vascular plants through a comprehensive Bayesian analysis of the fossil record. New Phytologist (in press).
[3] Yong E (23 Mar 2009) ‘Extra genomes helped plants to survive extinction event that killed dinosaurs’, Not Exactly Rocket Science [blog] <http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/03/23/extra-genomes-helped-plants-to-survive-extinction-event-that/>

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