New ancient fungus finding suggests world's forests were wiped out in global catastrophe

Oct 01, 2009
An enlarged image of Reduviasporonites
An enlarged image of Reduviasporonites

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists beleive extinct fungus species capitalised on a world-wide disaster and thrived on early Earth.

Tiny organisms that covered the planet more than 250 million years ago appear to be a species of ancient that thrived in dead wood, according to new research published today in the journal Geology.

The researchers behind the study, from Imperial College London and other universities in the UK, USA and The Netherlands, believe that the organisms were able to thrive during this period because the world’s forests had been wiped out. This would explain how the organisms, which are known as Reduviasporonites, were able to proliferate across the planet.

Researchers had previously been unsure as to whether Reduviasporonites were a type of fungus or algae. By analysing the carbon and content of the fossilised remains of the microscopic organisms, the scientists identified them as a type of wood-rotting fungus that would have lived inside dead trees.

Fossil records of Reduviasporonites reveal chains of microscopic cells and reflect an organism that lived during the Permian-Triassic period, before the dinosaurs, when the Earth had one giant continent called Pangaea.

Geological records show that the Earth experienced a global catastrophe during this period. Basalt were unleashed on the continent from a location centred on what is present day Siberia. Up to 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of land species became extinct. Traditionally, scientists had thought that land plants weathered the catastrophe without much loss.

Today’s findings suggest that much of the vegetation on Pangaea did not survive and that the world’s forests were wiped out, according to the researchers. Geological records show that there was a massive spike in the population of Reduviasporonites across Pangea as the Permian period came to an end. The scientists suggest that this means that there was in increase in the supply of wood for them to decay.

Professor Mark Sephton, one of the authors of the study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, comments:

“Our study shows that neither plant nor animal life escaped the impact of this global catastrophe. Ironically, the worst imaginable conditions for plant and animal species provided the best possible conditions for the fungi to flourish.”

The team suggest that the basalt lava, which flowed during Permian-Triassic catastrophe, unleashed toxic gases into the air. The gases had a dual effect, producing acid rain and depleting the ozone layer. The outcome was the destruction of forests, providing enough rotting vegetation to nourish Reduviasporonites so that they could proliferate across Pangaea.

The team reached their conclusions by analysing the carbon and nitrogen content of Reduviasporonites using a High Sensitivity Mass Spectrometer and comparing the results with those from modern fungi. They discovered that Reduviasporonites and modern fungi show similar chemical characteristics.

In the future, the team plan to carry out further comparisons between Reduviasporonites and potential counterparts among modern fungi, which they hope will provide further clues about how Reduviasporonites lived.

More information: “Chemical constitution of a Permian-Triassic disaster species”, Geology, October 2009; v. 37; no. 10; p. 875-878; doi: 10.1130/G30096A.1

Provided by Imperial College London

Explore further: New study confirms water vapor as global warming amplifier

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

When bivalves ruled the world

Sep 01, 2007

Before the worst mass extinction of life in Earth’s history – 252 million years ago – ocean life was diverse and clam-like organisms called brachiopods dominated. After the calamity, when little else ...

Fossil magnetism helps prove mass extinction theory

May 04, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Were major extinction events real biological catastrophes or were they merely the result of gaps in the fossil record? Research by a team of geologists from the Universities of Bristol, Plymouth, ...

Recommended for you

New research reveals Pele is powerful, even in the sky

45 minutes ago

One might assume that a tropical storm moving through volcanic smog (vog) would sweep up the tainted air and march on, unchanged. However, a recent study from atmospheric scientists at the University of Hawai'i ...

Image: Wildfires continue near Yellowknife, Canada

58 minutes ago

The wildfires that have been plaguing the Northern Territories in Canada and have sent smoke drifting down to the Great Lakes in the U.S. continue on. NASA's Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image ...

Excavated ship traced to Colonial-era Philadelphia

2 hours ago

Four years ago this month, archeologists monitoring the excavation of the former World Trade Center site uncovered a ghostly surprise: the bones of an ancient sailing ship. Tree-ring scientists at Columbia ...

Tropical tempests take encouragement from environment

3 hours ago

Mix some warm ocean water with atmospheric instability and you might have a recipe for a cyclone. Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Atlanta Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

out7x
3 / 5 (2) Oct 02, 2009
Excellent discussion of End-Permian extinction. But does not discriminate between impact and volcanic scenarios.