Mutagenesis in land plants during the end-Triassic mass extinction


A basaltic lava flow section from the Middle Atlas, Morocco. From Wikimedia Commons.

During the last 540 million years five mass extinction events shaped the history of the Earth. The End-Triassic Extinction at 201.51 million years (Ma) is probably the least understood of these events. Most mammal-like reptiles and large amphibians disappeared, as well as early dinosaur groups. In the oceans, this event eliminated conodonts and nearly annihilated corals, ammonites, brachiopods and bivalves. In the Southern Hemisphere, the vegetation turnover consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

The mass extinction event was likely caused by the eruption of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), a large igneous province emplaced during the initial rifting of Pangea. Data indicates that magmatic activity started c. 100,000 years before the endTriassic event and continued in pulses for 700,000 years. The CO2 emissions caused global warming. The SO2 emissions on mixing with water vapour in the atmosphere, caused acid rain, which in turn killed land plants and caused soil erosion.

A normal fern spore compared with mutated ones from the end-Triassic mass extinction event. Image credit: S LINDSTRÖM, GEUS

Volcanoes are also a primary source of mercury (Hg) in the global atmosphere. Mercury can cause morphologically visible abnormalities in plants and their reproductive cells (spores and pollen). A new study led by Sofie Lindström of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland analized various types of abnormalities in the reproductive cells of ferns, with focus in two morphogroups: LTT-spores (laevigate, trilete fern spores with thick exine), and LCT-spores (laevigate, circular, trilete spores). The LTT-spores were produced primarily by the fern families Dipteridaceae, Dicksoniaceae, and Matoniaceae, while LCT spores were primarily produced by ferns belonging to Osmundaceae and Marattiales.

The elevated concentrations of mercury (Hg) in sedimentary rocks in North America, Greenland, England, Austria, Morocco, and Peru are linked to CAMP eruptions. This pulse of mercury also correlate with high occurrences of abnormal fern spores, indicating severe environmental stress and genetic disturbance in the parent plants. Three negative organic C-isotope excursions (CIEs) have being recognized at the end-Triassic: the Marshi, the Spelae, and the top-Tilmanni CIEs. Malformations in LTT-spores first occur sporadically in the lower pre-Marshi interval. LCT-spores are present but are generally rare in this interval. During the Spelae CIE, the occurrences of moderate to severe malformations increased and aberrant forms can encompass as much as 56% of the counted LTT-spores. This interval is associated with marked global warming, recorded by stomatal proxy data.




Sofie Lindström et al. Volcanic mercury and mutagenesis in land plants during the end-Triassic mass extinction, Science Advances (2019). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4018}

Grasby, S. E., Them, T. R., Chen, Z., Yin, R., & Ardakani, O. H. (2019). Mercury as a proxy for volcanic emissions in the geologic record. Earth-Science Reviews, 102880. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2019.102880

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