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Floral changes across the Triassic/Jurassic boundary linked to flood basalt volcanism

Abstract

One of the five largest mass extinctions of the past 600 million years occurred at the boundary of the Triassic and Jurassic periods, 201.6 million years ago. The loss of marine biodiversity at the time has been linked to extreme greenhouse warming, triggered by the release of carbon dioxide from flood basalt volcanism in the central Atlantic Ocean. In contrast, the biotic turnover in terrestrial ecosystems is not well understood, and cannot be readily reconciled with the effects of massive volcanism. Here we present pollen, spore and geochemical analyses across the Triassic/Jurassic boundary from three drill cores from Germany and Sweden. We show that gymnosperm forests in northwest Europe were transiently replaced by fern and fern-associated vegetation, a pioneer assemblage commonly found in disturbed ecosystems. The Triassic/Jurassic boundary is also marked by an enrichment of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which, in the absence of charcoal peaks, we interpret as an indication of incomplete combustion of organic matter by ascending flood basalt lava. We conclude that the terrestrial vegetation shift is so severe and wide ranging that it is unlikely to have been triggered by greenhouse warming alone. Instead, we suggest that the release of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and toxic compounds such as the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may have contributed to the extinction.

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Figure 1: Distribution of CAMP basalts and T/J boundary fern proliferation.
Figure 2: Floral changes across the T/J boundary as reconstructed from pollen and spores.
Figure 3: A T/J boundary ‘dark zone’.
Figure 4: PAH in T/J boundary beds.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Christ (Frankfurt University) for her help with the quantification of the PAH and E. Gottwald (Frankfurt University) for continued support in terms of rock preparation. Discussions with H. Visscher (Utrecht University), J. Payne (Stanford University), H. Jenkyns and S. Hesselbo (Oxford University) helped to shape ideas presented here. J. van Konijnenburg-van Cittert (Utrecht University) is warmly thanked for her advice on palaeobotanical affinities of identified palynomorphs. B.v.d.S. acknowledges financial support from the German Science Foundation (DFG) project Scho-1216/2. S.L. acknowledges financial support from the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU) and the Crafoord Foundation.

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Contributions

B.v.d.S., S.L. and C.H. were responsible for generating the palynological data from Mingolsheim, Höllviken-2 and Mariental, respectively, and were involved in writing. W.P. analysed samples from Mariental for biomarkers and assisted with the interpretation. H.-G.R. was responsible for drilling the Mariental core and provided important lithologic and stratigraphic information. R.P. generated the clay mineral data and helped with the discussion. J.P. and S.R. contributed on the palaeoecological and biostratigraphic interpretations. J.F., T.M.Q., Y.R. and P.G.F. contributed to the text.

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Correspondence to B. van de Schootbrugge.

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van de Schootbrugge, B., Quan, T., Lindström, S. et al. Floral changes across the Triassic/Jurassic boundary linked to flood basalt volcanism. Nature Geosci 2, 589–594 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo577

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