A new study provides fresh evidence that the Chicxulub asteroid impact, which left a gargantuan crater in Mexico, closely coincided with the mass extinction of dinosaurs.
Artwork by Julius Csotonyi
Jurassic Dino Nesting Site
Jan. 23, 2012
-- The oldest known dinosaur nesting site, dating to 190 million years ago, has been unearthed in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa. The extraordinary site, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, includes multiple dinosaur nests, eggs, hatchlings and the remains of adults for this species, Massospondylus. Project leader Robert Reisz, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, told Discovery News that the dinosaur was herbivorous. Like its sauropod relatives, it had a very small head and an extremely long neck. The hatchlings walked on all fours, but adults were bipedal. "The transition from four legs to two during an individual's lifetime is a very unusual growth pattern that we rarely see in animals, but we do see it in humans," Reisz said. "The largest articulated skeleton of this animal was about 6 meters (19.7 feet) in length, but they probably grew even larger."
Dinosaur Nest The discovery provides evidence for "nesting site fidelity," according to Reisz, "as it looks like these dinosaurs liked this place and returned to it repeatedly to lay their eggs." It's also the oldest evidence in the fossil record for a highly organized nest, with eggs carefully laid in a single layer. Reisz and co-author David Evans, an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, are shown here standing next to a nest in plaster at the site. Plaster protects the excavated nest, just like the broken bone in a human. The plaster cover is later removed in the lab for research. Reisz said clues about the nest are difficult to interpret, but what's known so far is that "the nests seem to be fairly shallow because all the eggs are in one layer," he said. "We do not know if the nests were covered by vegetation or if they were buried because the nature of the sediments preclude the preservation of plant fossil remains. It is quite possible that the mother guarded the nests." Nest guarding today is fairly common among living reptiles, such as crocodiles. It's also now known "that the hatchlings stayed around the nesting area long enough to at least grow to double in size."
NEWS: Nest Full of Baby Dinosaurs Found
Adult Massospondylus Skull, Complete Embryo This photo compares the size of the skull of an adult next to the skeleton of an entire tiny embryo. The researchers believe each Massospondylus mother laid a lot of small eggs, at least 35, which was a probable survival strategy. "There were large and small meat-eating theropod dinosaurs around at the time Massospondylus lived,” Evans told Discovery News. "The smaller, more agile predator called Coelophysis, was much smaller than adult Massospondylus, but would have been a threat to the hatchlings and juveniles." So far, the researchers have found 10 dinosaur nests at the site, but they suspect many more are still embedded within the South African cliff. They predict many other nests will be eroded out in time, as the natural weathering process continues.
Dinosaur Embryo Close-Up This close-up of a Massospondylus embryonic skeleton reveals that the head was pushed out of the egg after death. The scientists suspect gases produced by decay caused this to happen. They also think the site was so well preserved because the dinosaur moms chose to lay their eggs in what was then, back in the Early Jurassic Period, a wet spot at the edge of a river. Reisz explained, "Periodically there was an unusually wet season and this area was flooded, drowning the unhatched eggs and embryos, and covering the nests with very fine sediment. Yet this turned out not to be such a horrible disaster for paleontologists." South Africa appears to have been a hotspot for Massospondylus, with other possible nesting sites for this dinosaur probably in existence. So far, however, the one at Golden Gate Highlands National Park is the only nursery to yield complete clutches, with eggs containing embryos, Evans said. He added that similar evidence for large-scale nesting among dinosaurs exists, for dinos such as duck bills and sauropods, but that evidence is about 100 million years younger than this South African site.
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Baby Dinosaur Handprint The discovery provides the world's oldest clear evidence for baby dinosaur footprints at a nesting site. The handprint seen here, as well as the other excavated baby prints, indicates that the infants stayed near the nest site after hatching and walked on all four limbs at first. Reisz said, "The overall body shape of the hatchlings with a large, toothless head, relatively long neck, and general look of helplessness suggests that parental care was very likely in Massospondylus. We think that the mother may have guarded the nest and the hatchlings, but may have also fed the babies with plant material." The paleontologists are now in the process of testing this hypothesis by preparing more embryos from different nests, to see if any of them have teeth. This ongoing research would be the first study of different embryological stages in a dinosaur.
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The idea that a cosmic impact ended the age of dinosaurs in what is now Mexico now has fresh new support, researchers say.
The most recent and most familiar mass extinction is the one that finished the reign of the dinosaurs — the end-Cretaceous or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, often known as K-T. The only survivors among the dinosaurs are the birds.
Currently, the main suspect behind this catastrophe is a cosmic impact from an asteroid or comet, an idea first proposed by physicist Luis Alvarez and his son geologist Walter Alvarez. Scientists later found that signs of this collision seemed evident near the town of Chicxulub (CHEEK-sheh-loob) in Mexico in the form of a gargantuan crater more than 110 miles (180 kilometers) wide. The explosion, likely caused by an object about 6 miles (10 km) across, would have released as much energy as 100 trillion tons of TNT, more than a billion times more than the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
However, further work suggested the Chicxulub impact occurred either 300,000 years before or 180,000 years after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. As such, researchers have explored other possibilities, including other impact sites, such as the controversial Shiva crater in India, or even massive volcanic eruptions, such as those creating the Deccan Flats in India.
Timing of an impact
New findings using high-precision radiometric dating analysis of debris kicked up by the impact now suggest the K-T event and the Chicxulub collision happened no more than 33,000 years apart. In radiometric dating, scientists estimate the ages of samples based on the relative proportions of specific radioactive materials within them. [Wipe Out: History's Most Mysterious Mass Extinctions]
"We've shown the impact and the mass extinction coincided as much as one can possibly demonstrate with existing dating techniques," researcher Paul Renne, a geochronologist and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, told LiveScience.
Image credit: NASA
The fact the impact and mass extinction may have been virtually simultaneous in time supports the idea that the cosmic impact dealt the age of dinosaurs its deathblow.
"The impact was clearly the final straw that pushed Earth past the tipping point," Renne said. "We have shown that these events are synchronous to within a gnat's eyebrow, and therefore, the impact clearly played a major role in extinctions, but it probably wasn't just the impact."
The new extinction date is precise to within 11,000 years.
"When I got started in the field, the error bars on these events were plus or minus a million years," added paleontologist William Clemens at the University of California at Berkeley, who did not participate in this research. "It's an exciting time right now, a lot of which we can attribute to the work that Paul and his colleagues are doing in refining the precision of the time scale with which we work."
Although the cosmic impact and mass extinction coincided in time, Renne cautioned this does not mean the impact was the only cause of the die-offs. For instance, dramatic climate swings in the preceding million years, including long cold snaps in the general hothouse environment of the Cretaceous, probably brought many creatures to the brink of extinction. The volcanic eruptions behind the Deccan Traps might be one cause of these climate variations.
"These precursory phenomena made the global ecosystem much more sensitive to even relatively small triggers, so that what otherwise might have been a fairly minor effect shifted the ecosystem into a new state," Renne said.
The cosmic impact then proved the deathblow.
"What we really need to do is to understand better what was going on before the impact — what was the level of ecological stress that existed that allowed the impact to be the straw that broke the camel's back?" Renne said. "We also need better dates for the massive volcanism at the Deccan Flats to better understand when it first started and how fast it occurred."
The scientists detailed their findings in the Feb. 8 issue of the journal Science.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
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