Fossils, In Technicolor, Can Get You Thinking

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Evidence of marine life that was thriving about 1.3 million years after the largest mass extinction on Earth has been found in what is now Paris Canyon in Idaho. Credit Jorge Gonzalez

The moment I saw this illustration above I was taken back to the books of my childhood–the ones my parents knew I liked the best, and a favored gift on birthdays, with fantastic illustrations of prehistoric creatures. These books also taught me the value of a public library, where I could triple my inventory for weeks at a time, and they kept my flashlight in use after lights out.  Thanks to illustrator Jorge Gonzaelez for this memory, and for providing another reason to appreciate the importance of the work of Nicholas St. Fleur and his contemporaries, the new generation of science writers who bring natural history to life:

After Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction, Life Rebounded Rapidly, Fossils Suggest

By Nicholas St. Fleur

One day when L. J. Krumenacker was a teenager, he left his home to hunt for fossils. He drove about an hour and a half to Paris Canyon in Bear Lake County in southeastern Idaho and stopped at a foothill covered in sagebrush. Mr. Krumenacker got out of his car, picked up the first large rock he saw and smashed it with a hammer, uncovering seven or eight fossilized shark teeth.

“I did a double take. I thought, ‘No, this is impossible.’ But they really were shark teeth,” Mr. Krumenacker said. “Immediately I thought this spot was important because you don’t go out and randomly find 250-million-year-old shark teeth on accident.”

What Mr. Krumenacker didn’t know was that he had stumbled upon a fossil treasure trove that contained clues to how life bounced back after the largest mass extinction on Earth. The cataclysmic event, known as “the Great Dying,” occurred about 252 million years ago, ending the Permian Period.

It was more devastating than the event that annihilated the dinosaurs some 186 million years later. Scientists think it may have been caused by intense volcanic activity that released tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide, heating the planet and acidifying the oceans. And the fossils Mr. Krumenacker first stumbled upon in Paris Canyon may be a sign that life on Earth recovered much more quickly than previously known.

“Something in the neighborhood of 90 percent of species went extinct,” said Daniel Stephen, a paleontologist at Utah Valley University and an author of the paper that appeared in Science Advances on Wednesday. “Just imagine you go outside, look around you and nine out of 10 of every life form you see around you have vanished.”…

Read the whole article here.

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