London: Over 90 per cent of mammal species were wiped out by the same asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, significantly more than previously thought, according to a new study.
Researchers at University of Bath in the UK reviewed all mammal species known from the end of the Cretaceous period in North America. Their results showed that over 93 per cent became extinct
across the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, but that they also recovered far more quickly than previously thought.
The scientists analysed the previous research on fossils from western North America from two million years before the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, until 300,000 years after the asteroid hit.
They compared species diversity before and after this extinction event to estimate the severity of the event and how quickly the mammals recovered. The extinction rates were much higher than previous estimates based on more limited data sets.
"The species that are most vulnerable to extinction are the rare ones, and because they are rare, their fossils are less likely to be found," said Dr. Nick Longrich from the Milner Centre for Evolution at in the University of Bath.
"The species that tend to survive are more common, so we tend to find them. The fossil record is biased in favour of the species that survived," Longrich said.
As bad as things looked before, including more data shows the extinction was more severe than previously believed," he said.
Following the asteroid hit, most of the plants and animals would have died, so the survivors probably fed on insects eating dead plants and animals. With so little food, only small species survived.
The biggest animals to survive on land would have been no larger than a cat. The fact that that most mammals were small helps explain why they were able to survive. Yet the researchers found that mammals also recovered more rapidly than previously thought, not only gaining back the lost diversity in species quickly but soon doubling the number of species found before the extinction.
The recovery took just 300,000 years, a short time in evolutionary terms, researchers said. "Because mammals did so well after the extinction, we have tended to assume that it didn't hit them as hard," Longrich said. "However our analysis shows that the mammals were hit harder than most groups of animals, such as lizards, turtles, crocodilians, but they proved to be far more adaptable in the aftermath," he added.
The study was published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
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