(CN) – Should the worst prognosis for climate-ravaged planet Earth materialize, the recovery time for the globe would be slow and arduous, according to a new study published Monday.
Paleobiologists from the University of Bristol and University of Texas studied the fossils of a small species that went the way of the dinosaurs, trying to discern the rate of recovery for species after a mass extinction event.
“From this study, it’s reasonable to infer that it’s going to take an extremely long time – millions of years – to recovery from the extinction that we’re causing through climate change and other methods,” said Andrew Fraass, co-author of the study, in a statement.
Fraass and his co-author Christopher Lowery are researchers at Bristol and published their study Monday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
The study focuses on an ancient species called planktic foraminifera, which dates back to the geologic era of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when dinosaurs were eradicated from earth.
“Foraminifera are useful at the species level because of their superior fossil record, so we’ve been able to look at this process in a closer way than anybody else,” Fraass said.
Researchers say the ancient mass extinction provides a useful analogue to what is occurring today as human-caused climate change is causing extinctions at a similarly rapid pace. Accordingly, habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive species also parallel the ancient event, the study says.
The way the researchers arrived at their study of the pace of recovery of the species was to measure the individual fossil specimens, concentrating on a 20-million-year period where extinction and recovery occurred.
The records show global recovery took about 10 million years as evolutionary innovations had to first appear and then slowly finer differentiations appeared via mutation before specializations could be evolved.
The lesson is that global recovery from extinction has a speed limit, with incremental ecosystem rehabilitation and a painstakingly slow process of evolution.
Fraass and Lowery plan to extend their study of the small fossils into the Jurassic and beyond to get an even fuller picture of species recovery in the aftermath of extinction.
“We’re hoping that examining the rest of the planktic foraminiferal record will give us insight into how climate shaped their evolution,” Fraass said. “With the past, slower, changes in climate we have in the geological record, we should be able to tease out more details about how climate change might impact these important plankton.”