Plankton fossils tell tale of evolution and extinction

Apr 18, 2011
Plankton fossils tell tale of evolution and extinction

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists studying the fossils of tiny ocean-dwelling plankton, called foraminifera, have uncovered another piece in the puzzle of why species evolve or become extinct.

The issue of whether extinctions and evolution are controlled more by the environment or by the existing diversity of species in an ecosystem is one that scientists have been debating since Darwin's time.

Writing in the journal Science on Friday 15 April, researchers from Imperial College London and Cardiff University say their study of foraminifera, or ‘forams’, suggests that new species are more likely to evolve when there are fewer species already and that extinctions are more closely linked to a change in environment than they are to the number of existing species.

Forams are marine plankton measuring not more than half a millimetre across, smaller than a grain of sand. They are abundant in oceans the world over, where they have existed for over a hundred million years. When forams die, they sink into the seabeds where they accumulate in layers many kilometres deep, providing a largely unbroken record of their history.

They have distinct shells made from calcium carbonate, similar to the shells of snails and birds' eggs, which can tell scientists about the environment in which they lived. For these reasons forams make excellent subjects for studying changes in environment and evolution.

Advanced techniques in geochemistry and microscopy have allowed the scientists to interrogate the foram fossil record in greater resolution than ever before. This enabled the researchers to model the interactions between the diversity of different foram species, the climate and the species' ecology over time, in order to see what factors had the greatest impact on the species’ evolution.

By looking at the shells under a microscope and using information derived from chemical analysis of the shells, the team was able to make interpretations about the environments the foraminifera were living in; for example, whether they lived in the surface waters and hosted even tinier photosynthetic organisms or whether they lived hundreds of meters down where the light and heat from the sun was greatly reduced.

Professor Andy Purvis, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London is a lead author of the study. He said: "Newly obtained paleontological data about forams and the environmental conditions they endured are only just starting to yield valuable information about how life has changed form and function over time. This work is another step towards improving our understanding the complexity of extinct and could help scientists predict future changes in modern biodiversity."

Tracy Aze, co-author on the study and a PhD student in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Cardiff University, said: "The is a critical resource for understanding how today's species might react to our changing climate because it is the only way to study evolution's winners and losers."

Co-author Dr Thomas Ezard, now at the Department of Mathematics at the University of Surrey, devised a mathematical framework to analyse the interactions of species diversity, climate and species behaviour whilst at Imperial College London. He said: "The richness of the foram record lends itself ideally to detailed mathematical and statistical modelling. This richness provides us with the robust evidence we need to make predictions about how complex interactions drive evolutionary dynamics."

Dr Ezard concluded: “if we want to understand evolution fully, we need to acknowledge that not all are one and the same. The astonishing abundance and diversity of these provides crucial clues in awkward parts of ’s puzzle”.

Explore further: Walking fish reveal how our ancestors evolved onto land

More information: www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6027/349.full

Related Stories

Tiny Marine Organisms Reflect Ocean Warming

Jan 05, 2006

Sediment cores collected from the seafloor off Southern California suggest that plankton populations in the Northeastern Pacific have changed significantly since the early 1900s, and that the changes closely ...

Predicting the distribution of creatures great and small

Jul 17, 2008

In studying how animals change size as they evolve, biologists have unearthed several interesting patterns. For instance, most species are small, but the largest members of a taxonomic group -- such as the great white shark, ...

DNA study sheds new light on horse evolution

Dec 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Ancient DNA retrieved from extinct horse species from around the world has challenged one of the textbook examples of evolution - the fossil record of the horse family Equidae over the past ...

Recommended for you

New tool aids stem cell engineering for medical research

11 hours ago

A Mayo Clinic researcher and his collaborators have developed an online analytic tool that will speed up and enhance the process of re-engineering cells for biomedical investigation. CellNet is a free-use Internet platform ...

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (8) Apr 18, 2011
The problem for scientists is that the uniformitarian assumptions which form the basis for the Earth sciences today is oftentimes in contradiction to the observation of evidence for repeated catastrophe. That there are enigmatic, highly coincidental accounts which permeate human mythology (the "creation myths") strongly suggests that these catastrophes have persisted into human historical times. Adam and Eve may have merely been the two sole survivors of the last catastrophe. While scientists have successfully thwarted Immanuel Velikovsky's "proofs" for recent catastrophe, they have not one bit undermined the view that catastrophes are common, and very possibly instrumental in creating giant structures like the Grand Canyon. After all, why does the Colorado River punch straight through the Kaibab Upwarp plateau? Rivers tend to go *AROUND* impediments -- not through them. It's as if the Grand Canyon fell from the sky.
J-n
5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2011
If the human population was brought down to two individuals humans would be extinct within a VERY few generations. (inbreeding).

I know it was not mentioned, but the great flood that supposedly happened as well never seemed to be recorded by the Egyptians.

While it seems myths can SOMETIMES explain actual things that happened, more often than not, they do not explain things that actually happened.
kevinrtrs
1.4 / 5 (10) Apr 19, 2011
If the human population was brought down to two individuals humans would be extinct within a VERY few generations. (inbreeding)

Here you are making a number of assumptions:
1. The genetic code is deficient and full of damage - as it is today.
2. The environment is such that it cannot support the requirements for a healthy genome - as it is today.
In the garden of Eden, things were different - physical perfection existed - and it persisted stubbornly even after the fall of man. Which is why biblical characters lived so long in Genesis. Only after the flood did things really go downhill fast. But then, you don't believe these myths.

While it seems myths can SOMETIMES explain actual things that happened, more often than not, they do not explain things that actually happened.

You DO realize that whilst you are so ardently critical of creation you are ALSO describing evolution here, don't you? Evolution [as in the one-ancestor story]is a myth of devilish proportions.
Mayor__Dooley
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2011
Kevin: head of an ass, manner of a troll and all the wit of a fly against a window.
CSharpner
5 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2011
If the human population was brought down to two individuals humans would be extinct within a VERY few generations. (inbreeding)

Here you are making a number of assumptions:
1. The genetic code is deficient and full of damage - as it is today.

Are you saying that damaged offspring due to inbreeding is a result of damaged and deficient DNA in the parents? Please explain. Keep in mind that these "deficient" parents can produce offspring that are just fine if they don't inbreed.

You appear to be saying that DNA changes from generation to generation? If so, this is a fundamental leap for you. Do NOT downplay this. This is incredibly significant! Are you publicly stating that you believe that DNA can and does change from generation to generation?

continued...
CSharpner
5 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2011
continued...

In the garden of Eden, things were different - physical perfection existed

1. Do you have evidence for this garden of Eden?
2. Do you further have evidence that there was "perfection"?
2a. How do you define "perfection"?
and it persisted stubbornly even after the fall of man

Again, where do you derive this information? Please inform us all.
Only after the flood

Which flood? Or are you talking about the world-wide flood?

Try to gain some credibility and answer the question: If there was a worldwide flood, why didn't the Egyptions notice? WHEN was this flood?... for the 100th time!
But then, you don't believe these myths.

"Myths"? Another breakthrough!

I believe kev is evolving an doesn't know it.

continued...
CSharpner
5 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2011
You DO realize that whilst you are so ardently critical of creation

Here's one of the many problems I have with a 6 day creation only thousands of years ago: If the universe were created only thousands of years ago, why can we see see objects BILLIONS of light years away?

I know you won't answer that because I've asked it countless times and you disappear from the thread 100% of the time, like you will disappear now.