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Resilience of Pacific pelagic fish across the Cretaceous/Palaeogene mass extinction


Open-ocean ecosystems experienced profound disruptions to biodiversity and ecological structure during the Cretaceous/Palaeogene mass extinction about 66 million years ago1,2,3. It has been suggested that during this mass extinction, a collapse of phytoplankton production rippled up the food chain, causing the wholesale loss of consumers and top predators3,4,5. Pelagic fish represent a key trophic link between primary producers and top predators, and changes in their abundance provide a means to examine trophic relationships during extinctions. Here we analyse accumulation rates of microscopic fish teeth and shark dermal scales (ichthyoliths) in sediments from the Pacific Ocean and Tethys Sea across the Cretaceous/Palaeogene extinction to reconstruct fish abundance. We find geographic differences in post-disaster ecosystems. In the Tethys Sea, fish abundance fell abruptly at the Cretaceous/Palaeogene boundary and remained depressed for at least 3 million years. In contrast, fish abundance in the Pacific Ocean remained at or above pre-boundary levels for at least four million years following the mass extinction, despite marked extinctions in primary producers and other zooplankton consumers in this region. We suggest that the mass extinction did not produce a uniformly dead ocean or microbially dominated system. Instead, primary production, at least regionally, supported ecosystems with mid-trophic-level abundances similar to or above those of the Late Cretaceous.

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Figure 1: Map of the sites included in this study and relative changes in ichthyolith accumulation across the boundary.
Figure 2: Global pattern of ichthyolith accumulation rates through the K/Pg mass extinction.
Figure 3: Central Pacific (ODP Site 1209) comparison of mass accumulation rates for different trophic groups through the K/Pg mass extinction.


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This work was financially supported by a NASA Exobiology grant NNX07AK62G (to R.D.N.) and supported by the Ocean Drilling Program (special thanks to P. Rumford). Field work for collection and processing of Gubbio samples was funded by a Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology by the American Philosophical Society in 2012 to E.C.S. Assistance in the field was provided by J. Dhaliwal.

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R.D.N. and P.M.H. conceived the study; E.C.S. developed the methods, collected field samples, and generated and analysed the data; all authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth C. Sibert.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Sibert, E., Hull, P. & Norris, R. Resilience of Pacific pelagic fish across the Cretaceous/Palaeogene mass extinction. Nature Geosci 7, 667–670 (2014).

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