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Marine plankton could act as alert in mass extinction event: UVic researcher

Fossil record analysis shows that plankton community structures change before a mass extinction
A University of Victoria researcher found that plankton behavior changes before a mass extinction event, which could give insights to how climate change effects the ecosystem. (University of Victoria)

A University of Victoria micropaleontologist found that marine plankton may act as an early alert system before a mass extinction occurs.

With help from collaborators at the University of Bristol and Harvard, Andy Fraass’ newest paper in the Nature journal shows that after an analysis of fossil records showed that plankton community structures change before a mass extinction event.

“One of the major findings of the paper was how communities respond to climate events in the past depends on the previous climate,” Fraass said in a news release. “That means that we need to spend a lot more effort understanding recent communities, prior to industrialization. We need to work out what community structure looked like before human-caused climate change, and what has happened since, to do a better job at predicting what will happen in the future.”

According to the release, the fossil record is the most complete and extensive archive of biological changes available to science and by applying advanced computational analyses to the archive, researchers were able to detail the global community structure of the oceans dating back millions of years.

A key finding of the study was that during the “early eocene climatic optimum,” a geological era with sustained high global temperatures equivalent to today’s worst case global warming scenarios, marine plankton communities moved to higher latitudes and only the most specialized plankton remained near the equator, suggesting that the tropical temperatures prevented higher amounts of biodiversity.

“Considering that three billion people live in the tropics, the lack of biodiversity at higher temperatures is not great news,” paper co-leader Adam Woodhouse said in the release.

Next, the team plans to apply similar research methods to other marine plankton groups.

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