Tropical lagoons, shallow warm waters and unusual marine species are not normally associated with the bustling capital cities of London and Paris. But 50 million years ago northwest Europe harboured the widest range of sea life on the planet, according to evidence published today by an international team, including Natural History Museum scientists.
The seas around southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are famous destinations for divers. However, the new fossil evidence and DNA analysis shows this has not always been the globe’s number one spot for marine life and the hub has shifted to different places over time, including Europe.
‘Fifty million years ago, a shallow tropical sea covered London, Brussels and Paris containing the most diverse sea life on Earth,’ explains Dr Jon Todd, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum involved in the study. ‘This changed completely over the following 30 million years. The variety of tropical marine creatures around Europe gradually dropped as global climate cooled and as the Mediterranean became isolated from the Indian Ocean as tectonic movement created mountains in the Middle East.’
Southeast Asia’s coral reefs are among the world’s most threatened as the region is densely populated, and the rich variety of plants and animals are critical resources for many peoples living along the coast.
The causes of the current hotspot in southeast Asia remain controversial, but the region has had an exceptional variety of sea life for at least 25 million years. This long period of high diversity has coincided with increased tectonic activity in the region.
‘The Australian plate colliding with Eurasia created a broad belt of tropical coastal environments studded with a mosaic of habitats for large numbers of species,’ comments lead author Dr Willem Renema from Naturalis, the National Natural History Museum of the Netherlands.
Dr Ken Johnson, Museum palaeontologist and a co-author on the study says, ‘Collections of fossils at the Natural History Museum proved to be a critical piece in the puzzle. They allowed us to map out the changing geographical spread of tropical biodiversity as the hotspot hopped a third of the way around the world’.
Gaining a better understanding of the history of this unique environment will aid conservation efforts during the coming decades of global environmental change caused by humans.
Dr Johnson concludes, ‘Previously, some scientists believed the diversity we see in southeast Asia developed only in the past few million years in response to climate and sea-level changes caused by the Ice Ages. This new analysis indicates that in southeast Asia the global signal of climate change was also heavily influenced by local conditions that were set over the long-term by the region’s tectonic and oceanographic history. The story of changing geological and biological conditions can only by studied in the rock record – work that will occupy our Museum research team for many years to come.’
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