The Cretaceous Period of Earth history ended with a mass extinction that wiped out numerous species, most famously the dinosaurs. A new study now finds that the structure of North American ecosystems made the extinction worse than it might have been. The mountain-sized asteroid that left the now-buried Chicxulub impact crater on the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is almost certainly the ultimate cause of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, which occurred 65 million years ago. Nevertheless, "Our study suggests that the severity of the mass extinction in North America was greater because of the ecological structure of communities at the time.
Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences and Kenneth Angielczyk of the Field Museum, reconstructed terrestrial food webs for 17 Cretaceous ecological communities. Seven of these food webs existed within two million years of the Chicxulub impact and 10 came from the preceding 13 million years. The findings are based on a computer model showing how disturbances spread through the food web. Roopnarine developed the simulation to predict how many animal species would become extinct from a plant die-off, a likely consequence of the impact. "Besides shedding light on this ancient extinction, our findings imply that seemingly innocuous changes to ecosystems caused by humans might reduce the ecosystems' abilities to withstand unexpected disturbances," Roopnarine said.
The team's computer model describes all plausible diets for the animals under study. In one run, Tyrannosaurus might eat only Triceratops, while in another it eats only duck-billed dinosaurs, and in a third it might eat a more varied diet. This stems from the uncertainty regarding exactly what Cretaceous animals ate, but this uncertainty actually worked to the study's benefit.