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Asteroid breakup linked to the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event


The rise and diversification of shelled invertebrate life in the early Phanerozoic eon occurred in two major stages. During the first stage (termed as the Cambrian explosion), a large number of new phyla appeared over a short time interval 540 Myr ago. Biodiversity at the family, genus and species level, however, remained low until the second stage marked by the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event in the Middle Ordovician period1,2,3. Although this event represents the most intense phase of species radiation during the Palaeozoic era and led to irreversible changes in the biological make-up of Earth’s seafloors, the causes of this event remain elusive. Here, we show that the onset of the major phase of biodiversification 470 Myr ago coincides with the disruption in the asteroid belt of the L-chondrite parent body—the largest documented asteroid breakup event during the past few billion years4,5. The precise coincidence between these two events is established by bed-by-bed records of extraterrestrial chromite, osmium isotopes and invertebrate fossils in Middle Ordovician strata in Baltoscandia and China. We argue that frequent impacts on Earth of kilometre-sized asteroids—supported by abundant Middle Ordovician fossil meteorites and impact craters6—accelerated the biodiversification process.

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Figure 1: Global biodiversity change at family level through the early Palaeozoic era.
Figure 2: Distribution of extraterrestrial (chondritic) chromite and osmium isotopes through Middle Ordovician sections in Sweden and China.
Figure 3: Total diversity of brachiopod species (number of species) through part of the Lower and Middle Ordovician in Baltoscandia.


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This study was supported by financial support to B.S. from the National Geographic Society, Swedish Research Council (VR) and Crafoord Foundation and to D.A.T.H. from the Carlsberg Foundation. This is a contribution to International Geological Correlation Programme project 503.

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Correspondence to Birger Schmitz.

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Schmitz, B., Harper, D., Peucker-Ehrenbrink, B. et al. Asteroid breakup linked to the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Nature Geosci 1, 49–53 (2008).

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