Ancient Indian lava flows were once home to an incredibly explosive fossil fruit
By: April Carson
India was a rogue continent on a collision course with Asia before the Cretaceous Period came to an end. India, however, rafted over a "hot spot" within the Earth's crust before the two landmasses joined, triggering one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in history and perhaps contributing to the demise of the dinosaurs.
One of the most recent eruptions in India came to light after studying lava flows. The dates on these lava flows are between 65 and 70 million years ago, about the same time as the Chicxulub impactor that wiped out dinosaurs, birds, pterosaurs and large marine reptiles like mosasaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period.
In a study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, scientists analyzing fossilized plant matter wedged between layers of volcanic rock discovered a new species based on the discovery of distinctive fruit capsules that presumably exploded to scatter their seeds. The fossils may be from the spurge family (Euphorbiaceous), one of more than 7,000 species in the Euphorbiaceae family with well-known representatives such as poinsettia, castor oil plants, rubber trees and crotons.
The fruits were discovered in Mohgaon Kalan, a remote hamlet in central India, where the buried remnants of formerly widespread volcanic rock lie just below the surface in a tangled web.
"You may explore these hills and discover chert pebbles that have just eroded through the topsoil," said senior author Steven Manchester, paleobotany curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "Some of the greatest collecting is found where farmers have plowed the fields and moved the chunks to one side. It's like finding little Christmas presents every where you look along the edge of the fields for a paleobotanist."
The volcanism that occurred during these cataclysmic events is thought to have lasted for up to 1 million years, with periods of activity punctuated by lengthy pauses. The Deccan Traps, which are formed from the lava layers produced by the eruptions, now stretch across more than twice the size of California.
The last of the cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, which occurred at the end of the Cretaceous, may have been triggered by an extraterrestrial impact half a world away. The scientists' research shows that a surge in the Deccan Traps eruptions preceded a significant drop in carbon dioxide levels. This change would have resulted from fewer and smaller tropical plants, which fix carbon through photosynthesis.
Shales, chert, limestone, and clays have been sandwiched between the basalt in this case, revealing shales, chert, limestone, and clay layers stacked in a massive layer cake with alternating bands most of which are rich in plant and animal fossils. These fossils allow us to glimpse into what appear to have been relatively tranquil eras of stability situated amid large lava flows.
The botanical species were probably shrubs or tiny trees that thrived near hot springs formed by the interaction of groundwater with naturally heated rock beneath the surface, similar to present-day conditions in Yellowstone National Park. At the time of their preservation, India was edging its way through Earth's equatorial zone, generating warm, humid circumstances that supported a variety of tropical species including bananas, aquatic ferns, mallows and crepe myrtles relatives.
The Deccan traps are rich in petrified wood, which is typical there. However, the majority of them have tiny diameters, implying a scarcity of big trees that scientists attempting to piece together the ecological history of the area had failed to account for.
"We were expecting to discover huge forest giants in India, since it was located at a low latitude," Manchester stated.
The trees' inability to grow larger may be due to a number of factors, but Manchester thinks the underlying basalt might have limited root extension. Alternatively, he said, the plants could have been part of young forests that developed in volcanically active areas and were destroyed before they had a chance to mature. "When there've been recent eruptions, you're most likely to discover fossils because it leaves a lot of volcanic ash that can bury and preserve plants," he added.
Peeling back the layers of mystery fruit
The cherts were found intact, with the fruits of the new species preserved in a chert matrix by co-author Dashrath Kapgate. However, determining which plants they belonged to required significant study because there were just the fruits to go on.
"It didn't seem to fit well into any of the known plant species," said Rachel Reback, who conducted the research as an undergraduate student at the Florida Museum. "We needed to scan a large number of CT scans not only on our samples but also on fruit from living species in order to compare them directly."
The Smithsonian Institution's specimens, according to the researchers, allowed them to determine that the fossils belonged to the spurge family. However, one of the fossils was so unique that it was identified as a distinct species in the fossil genus Euphorbiotheca.
The inside structure of the fruit suggested that they were most likely explosives, a typical technique for seed dispersion in euphorbs such as cassava, rubber trees, crown of thorns, and castor oil plant. Once the fruit on these plants has matured, they begin to dry out and lose up to 64% of their original weight. "When sufficient water has evaporated, you hear this loud bang, and the seeds and fragments of the fruit go flying everywhere," Manchester explained of rubber trees. "We believe that these two fossil species exhibited the same anatomy because we see similar architecture, with fibers in the inner and outer layers of the fruit wall oriented in opposing directions to generate torque."
A breeding ground for new organizations and species in India
Fossils such as these provide paleontologists with valuable information on how species developed and moved. During the Cretaceous, a conjoined India and Madagascar began drifting away from Gondwana in the Southern Hemisphere, carrying plants and animals that had evolved in solitude over 140 million years.
By the time India slammed into Eurasia 10 million years after the demise of the dinosaurs, it had produced an extraordinary variety of life unknown to any other continent. It's possible that India was the birthplace of grapes and whale ancestors. New kinds of insect-eating pitcher plants, flightless birds, lizards, freshwater crabs, scorpions and praying mantises all emerged from India and entered new regions in Europe and Asia as the Himalayas rose above suture landmasses.
Manchester believes these fossils and others like them from the Deccan Traps might shed light on the distribution of species at a critical moment in Earth's history. "What were India's environments like when it was still disconnected to Eurasia, and how do they compare with those of other regions at the time?" he said. It's as if you're putting a puzzle together.
The new findings may also provide insight into how life is able to cross such barriers. "Are the organisms that make it over successful because they've adapted and evolved or simply by accident?" Manchester said.
Scientists have discovered fossils of a highly explosive fruit in lava formations on the Deccan Plateau dating back 66 million years. Originally published in the Journal of Geology , the findings shed light on an important time in Earth's history.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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