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Dinosaurs may have roamed a fiery landscape

March 30, 2012
Courtesy of the Field Museum of Natural History
and World Science staff

In the lat­er part of their reign, di­no­saurs may have faced an un­ex­pected haz­ard: fire, re­search­ers are re­port­ing.

New find­ings sug­gest that dur­ing the Cre­ta­ceous pe­ri­od, 145 mil­lion to 65 mil­lion years ago, run­away blaz­es were much more wide­spread than pre­vi­ously thought.

The Cre­ta­ceous was the era that wit­nessed the lat­est and al­so some of the most fear­some di­no­saurs, in­clud­ing the vi­cious Ty­ran­no­saur­us rex. It was al­so the pe­ri­od that fi­nally saw the end of the great rep­tiles, ex­cept for some that, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists, evolved in­to birds.

Re­cent re­search sug­gests the Cre­ta­ceous, and the di­no­saurs’ reign, ended as a string of se­vere earth­quakes and oth­er dis­as­ters placed what proved to be un­bear­a­ble pres­sure on the great rep­tiles. The new­est find­ings—to ap­pear in the jour­nal Cre­ta­ceous Re­search—indi­cates the di­no­saurs’ bad luck with hot things started ear­li­er.

Re­search­ers traced fire ac­ti­vity in the fos­sil rec­ord through the oc­cur­rence of char­coal de­posits. “Char­coal is the rem­nant of the plants that were burnt and is easily pre­served in the fos­sil rec­ord,” ex­plained An­drew C. Scott, the proj­ect lead­er from Roy­al Hol­loway Uni­vers­ity of Lon­don.

This pe­ri­od was a “green­house world” where glob­al tempe­ratures were high­er than those of to­day, the sci­en­tists said. Light­ning strikes would have been the main trig­ger for these wild­fires, but this pe­ri­od was al­so one when ox­y­gen lev­els in the air were high, help­ing to fu­el fires. “At such pe­ri­ods—unlike to­day—plants with high­er mois­ture con­tents could burn,” said Ian Glasspool, a col­la­bo­ra­tor in the work from the Field Mu­se­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry in Chica­go.

“Un­til now, few have tak­en in­to ac­count the im­pact that fires would have had on the en­vi­ron­ment, not only de­stroy­ing the vegeta­t­ion but al­so ex­ac­er­bating run-off and ero­sion and pro­mot­ing sub­se­quent flood­ing fol­low­ing storms,” Scott said. These past events may give some in­sights in­to how in­creased fire ac­ti­vity may af­fect our world to­day, he added. The re­search­ers are now as­sess­ing the im­pact the fires might have had on di­no­saur com­mun­i­ties.


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In the later part of their reign, the dinosaurs may have faced an unexpected hazard: fire, researchers are reporting. New findings suggest that during the Cretaceous period, 145 million to 65 million years ago, runaway blazes were much more widespread than previously thought. The Cretaceous was the era that witnessed the latest and also some of the most fierce dinosaurs, including the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex. It was also the period that finally saw the end of the great reptiles, except for some that, according to scientists, evolved into birds. Recent research suggests the Cretaceous, and the dinosaurs’ reign, ended as a string of severe earthquakes and other disasters placed what proved to be unbearable pressure on the great reptiles. The newest findings—published March 29 online in the journal Cretaceous Research—indicates the dinosaurs’ bad luck with hot things started earlier. Researchers traced fire activity in the fossil record through the occurrence of charcoal deposits. “Charcoal is the remnant of the plants that were burnt and is easily preserved in the fossil record,” explained Andrew C. Scott, the project leader from Royal Holloway University of London. This period was a “greenhouse world” where global temperatures were higher than those of today, the scientists said. Lightning strikes would have been the main trigger for these wildfires, but this period was also one when oxygen levels in the air were high, helping to fuel fires. “At such periods—unlike today—plants with higher moisture contents could burn,” said Ian Glasspool, collaborator in the work from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “Until now, few have taken into account the impact that fires would have had on the environment, not only destroying the vegetation but also exacerbating run-off and erosion and promoting subsequent flooding following storms,” Scott said. These past events may give some insights into how increased fire activity today may affect our world today, he added. The researchers are now assessing the impact these fires would have had on dinosaur communities.