Another scientific “gem” from the treasure-chest of the Dolomites

The Dolomites are a great treasure-chest, providing us with important scientific discoveries day after day. They represent a huge open-air university for geologists, and an inexhaustible source of knowledge for paleozoologists and palaeobotanists. These are experts such as Evelyn Kustatscher and Hendrik Nowak, of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Bolzano, and Elke Schneebeli-Hermann, of the University of Zurich, who recently published the results of their research on mass extinction during the Permian-Triassic period (252 million years ago). Their findings appeared in “Nature Communications” (No mass extinction for land plants at the Permian-Triassic transition). Their study revealed that the term “mass extinction” can only be properly used with reference to animals. Because the plant-life, in general, did not suffer in this way.

From the Dolomites to Antarctica

The South Tyrolean researchers explored the traces left by time in the gorges and ridges of the Dolomites: from Cortina to Osttirol, from the Ladine Valleys to Carinthia, from the Friulian Dolomites to the San Pellegrino Pass and the Bletterbach Gorge. These findings from the Dolomites were compared with data from all over the world, from Antarctica to Russia and China.

An analysis of over 34,000 spore and pollen records and more than 8,000 records of land plant fossils from the Permian-Triassic boundary, combined with a study of the existing literature and the various collections, led the researchers to a surprising conclusion: where they would have expected a clear interruption in the number of surviving genera or families, they noticed a contraction of less than twenty percent (compared to the fifty percent suggested in previous studies).

When the paradigm shifts

The scientific community reacted with great interest to these findings. It was one of those turning points which may alter the paradigm by which evidence from this period is always interpreted in terms of a mass extinction, known to have had a significant impact on the fauna, and the marine fauna in particular. Of course, a wide variation was noted between the different geographical areas under review. Although there is a greater incidence of extinction in the Dolomite region, the same cannot be said of China or South Africa, where the prevailing conditions were more favourable to survival.

A future development in this field relates to a Euregio research project involving the Museums of Trento and Bolzano and the University of Innsbruck. The aim will be to gain a better understanding of the results observed in the Dolomites, which will therefore continue to play their part as an open-air scientific laboratory.