Amazing scientific discovery in the Dolomites

A rapid increase in CO2 and the climate change crisis is the reason why the recent discoveries on the diversity of the dinosaurs also speak to the present. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of the scientific research coordinated by Professor Gianolla of the University of Ferrara and Massimo Bernardi of MUSE (the Trento Science Museum). This study shows how the first diversification of the dinosaurs happened in the wake of a profound crisis affecting the global ecosystem, caused by rapid climate change of which the Dolomites preserve the clearest traces. The results of the research were published recently in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.

Hosted by the Cortina d’Ampezzo Paleontological Museum, we interviewed Professor Gianolla.

Professor, everyone is talking about it by now, but could you just sum up what you have discovered?

“We have discovered that the time when the dinosaurs became dominant is linked to the Carnian climate change. They had already appeared in the Mid-Triassic period but they suddenly assumed major importance following the climate change event of 232-234 million years ago, associated with the rapid emission into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from a volcanic area”.

The subject of CO2 emissions is highly relevant today. Could we say that we are living through something similar, or would that put it too simply?

“It is not a simplification, our studies have considerable impact on what is happening today. The rapid emission into the atmosphere of CO2 is causing massive problems. The increase from 300 to 400ppm of CO2 can produce a temperature rise that in turn can lead to a dissociation of gas hydrates and an ecosystem crisis”.

It seems to be saying that life always wins out but what kind of life is unknown. Is this what we can learn from your research? That a climate change crisis could find us… on the wrong side?

“Exactly! After every major crisis the spaces left open are occupied by the survivors. There’s nothing to say that in a coming crisis we’ll be among those survivors!”.

Can you explain what happened 232-234 million years ago?

“The Dolomites are the best context for gaining a better understanding of the crisis that befell the tropical reefs, still clearly visible on the ledge below the Tofane and Tre Cime mountains or at the peaks of the Lastoni di Formin. The ledge documents the time at which the southern rivers, not forgetting that in the Triassic period where Venice is now was once land while here there was sea, carried solid materials into the basins and everything become covered with sediment that suffocated those ancient islands.

What did this mean for the fauna?

“Extinctions free up ecological spaces that are soon filled. Although the dinosaurs had existed before this event, after it they became the dominant lifeform”.

Could we say that all your work started with amber?

“In the 1990s a researcher from Cortina, Paolo Fedele, showed us the amber he had recovered and I together with some colleagues from Padua started to study it, noting that it could be found in different parts of the world at the same time. This got us all thinking, naturally, about the major discovery of Vittorino Cazzetta (Ed. after whom the Selva di Cadore Museum is named) who, in the 1980s discovered the dinosaur footprints at the foot of Mount Pelmetto. After that we were able to find such footprints everywhere, from the Friuli Dolomites to Mount Sella, from the Tofane peaks to mounts Moiazza, Civetta and Lastoni di Formin. The fact that footprints of another kind were underneath and above them those of the dinosaurians enabled us to start thinking about a climatic event.

Did you expect to stir such interest? Were you aware you were changing a paradigm?

“We were hoping to stir a significant degree of interest among fellow scientists, but our main concern is for this research to continue. The Dolomites are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for two reasons, its geological importance and the value of its landscape. Scientific research is absolutely essential. These mountains are an open-air laboratory and it is vital that they become a common heritage for all the people who live here”.