Last week I spent 4 days working in the Palaeontology Department at the Natural History Museum in London with Fiona Pye. Fiona is a second year undergraduate in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds and was awarded a Palaeontological Association Student Bursary to work on a summer research project called “Survival of the Smallest”.
The project focuses on the ‘Lilliput Effect’, a term referring to the temporary size reduction observed in animals in the aftermath of extinction events. This size reduction is thought to be a response to inhospitable environmental conditions brought about by high temperatures, reduced oxygen and increased acidity.
Fiona’s project is investigating the End-Triassic mass extinction, which occurred some 201 million years ago (Ma) and wiped out around 50% of marine genera. The extinction event is closely associated with massive volcanic eruptions that led to rapid global warming. Thus, it is hypothesised that marine shelly organisms will display a pattern of size reduction in the immediate aftermath of the End-Triassic mass extinction event.
Sampling the collections
Fiona’s project investigates size changes in Brachiopods across the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. Brachiopods are marine invertebrates that bear close resemblance to bivalve molluscs (i.e. clams) but, are evolutionary distinct and belong to a completely different phylum (Brachiopoda). There have been significant recent curatorial improvements to the Mesozoic brachiopod collections at the Museum which enabled us to systematically sample Late Triassic through Early Jurassic brachiopod fossils.
Fiona picked, measured, and photographed hundreds of brachiopod specimens (under the expert guidance of curators Zöe and Chris) to ascertain trends in body size of different taxa either side of, and across, the biotic crisis at the end of the Triassic Period.
Over the next few weeks, Fiona and I will analyse the data we have collected to ascertain any trends in brachiopod body size across the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.
Stay tuned for the results…