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A new study from researchers at the Natural History Museum and University of Bath has looked at the diversity of dinosaurs just before the asteroid that led to their extinction hit
66 million years ago. In contradiction to some current theories, the team found that dinosaurs were not in decline before their extinction and that under different circumstances they might have continued to be the dominant group of land animals on the planet.
Dinosaurs were widespread globally at the time of the asteroid impact at the end of the Late Cretaceous period globally, occupying every continent on the planet, and were the dominant form of animal in most terrestrial ecosystems. However, it is still contentious amongst paleobiologists as to whether dinosaurs were declining in diversity at the time of their extinction.
In order to address this question, the research team led by PhD student at the Museum Joe Bonsor, collected a set of different dinosaur family trees and used statistical modelling to assess if each of the main dinosaur groups was still able to produce new species at this time.
Their study found that dinosaurs were not in decline before the asteroid hit, contradicting some previous studies. The authors also suggest that had the impact not occurred, dinosaurs might have continued to be the dominant group of land animals on the planet.
Lead author of the study, Joe Bonsor, is undertaking his PhD jointly at the Natural History Museum, Milner Centre for Evolution and the University of Bath. Joe explains, ‘Previous studies have used various methods to draw the conclusion that dinosaurs would have died out anyway, as they were in decline towards the end of the Cretaceous period. However, we show that if you expand the dataset to include more recent dinosaur family trees and a broader set of dinosaur types, the results don’t actually all point to this conclusion - in fact only about half of them do.’
It is difficult to assess the diversity of dinosaurs due to gaps in the fossil record. This can be due to factors such as which bones are preserved as fossils, how accessible the fossils are in the rock to allow them to be found, and the locations where paleontologists search for them.
The researchers used statistical methods to overcome these sampling biases, looking at the rates of speciation of dinosaur families rather than simply counting the number of species belonging to the family.
Joe added, ‘The main point of our paper is that it isn’t as simple as looking at a few family trees and making a decision. The large unavoidable biases in the fossil record and lack of data can often show a decline in species, but this may not reflect the reality at the time.’
‘Our data don’t currently show they were in decline, in fact some groups such as hadrosaurs and ceratopsians were thriving and there’s no evidence to suggest they would have died out 66 million years ago had the extinction event not happened.”
With new dinosaurs being discovered all the time, at an average of 50 a year since the 2000s, the team behind this study hope that the story of dinosaur evolution will only become clearer. For now, it looks likely that had it not been for cosmic intervention our world would be very different today.
The study Dinosaur diversification rates were not in decline prior to the K-pg boundary has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science and available online here.
Notes to editors
The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Natural History Museum.
Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Images available to download here.
The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.
It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.
The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.
The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.
The Milner Centre for Evolution is a world-class research facility which bridges disciplines of biology, health and education. The Centre, part of the University of Bath, United Kingdom, is helping answer some of the most fundamental evolutionary questions of biology, and using this insight to find new technological and clinical research applications. Research into educational methods, and a novel outreach programme, is helping to improve public understanding of genetics and the importance of the process of evolution in all of life on Earth.
The Milner Centre for Evolution is named after University of Bath alumnus, Dr Jonathan Milner, who provided founding capital to establish and build the Centre. @MilnerCentre
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The University is rated Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the Government’s assessment of teaching quality in universities, meaning its teaching is of the highest quality in the UK.
In the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 research assessment 87 per cent of our research was defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. From developing fuel efficient cars of the future, to identifying infectious diseases more quickly, or working to improve the lives of female farmers in West Africa, research from Bath is making a difference around the world.
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