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Unanswered Question about Cretaceous–Tertiary Extinction Event: 1

As many readers know, I often don’t subscribe to widely-held and regurgitated explanations for phenomena, especially if they are obviously incomplete and not internally self-consistent. In my opinion, any theory or hypothesis which requires you to believe it based on the authority of some alleged experts is no different from religion. Let us now turn our attention to the topic of this post, namely why conventional explanations for what happened during the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K-T) extinction event are incomplete, misleading and often based on dubious reasoning. But before we go there, let us restate what we know for certain about that topic.

First, the extinction event in question did occur and resulted in the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs, many large marine reptiles, pterosaurs and also a significant number of mammals and birds species. Second, it is almost certain that a comet or asteroid did hit the earth around that time. Some of you might ask, where is the controversy? Isn’t this the conventional explanation for the K-T extinctiont.. you know.. a comet/asteroid hits earth and kills all dinosaurs, pterosaurs, large marine reptiles but not all mammals and birds, who then took over ecological niches left open by those extinct groups. As it turns out, a lot more was occurring on earth at that time.

1] While the most popular current explanation revolves around an comet/asteroid impact being the cause of that extinction- it is not without problems. For starters, there is a peculiar gap between the youngest dinosaur fossils found and the impact. To put it another way, dinosaur fossils disappear from fossil record about 100 to 200 thousand years before the asteroid impact. While a few fragmentary dinosaur fossils found in one single location are a bit closer to the asteroid impact layer, one such instance is not enough to definitively claim that the impact was the cause of K-T extinction. It also does not help that the four major extinctions before it were caused by extremely massive and prolonged volcanic events.

As luck would have it, one of largest events of that type in last 100 million years was going on at around the same time. The Deccan traps, a large igneous province in south-west India, started forming about 200-300 thousand years before the asteroid impact. It goes without saying that a volcanic outpouring which can cover over a million square km with a layer of lava about 2 km thick (original extent) would also pump out a shitload of gasses such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, rock dust and other types of particulate matters into the atmosphere. The pretense that such a large geological event did not contribute to the K-T extinction is, in my opinion, largely due to latent racism within the scientific community.

This become more obvious once you realize that the timing of this flood basalt deposition (which began 200-300k years before impact) coincides with the loss of dinosaur from the fossil record in most parts of the world. And yes.. I am aware of more recent theories about how the impact could have caused or sped up the massive volcanic outpourings which formed Deccan traps. In any case, we cannot keep on pretending that the impact event (as defined by the iridium layer at end of K-T boundary) was the major, let alone only, cause of that extinction. The evidence simply does not back the impactor-only hypothesis and we are going to talk more about it now.

2] Another problem with the impact-only hypothesis is that it doesn’t explain certain peculiarities of the extinction pattern. Why did some birds survive the extinction, while non-avian dinosaurs did not? This question is far more complicated than it appears at first glance. Let me explain, most of you know that modern birds (descended from survivors of K-T event) evolved from theropod dinosaurs. But the relationship between the two is even closer than most realize. Tell me if the the following extinct dinosaurs look like birds or dinosaurs.. Eosinopteryx, Aurornis, Jinfengopteryx and Byronosaurus. Long story short, there are entire genera of dinosaur fossils which display features intermediate between classical dinosaurs and modern birds. The first three are from late Jurassic, while the fourth is from late Cretaceous. Dinosaurs with significant bird-like characteristics existed alongside archaic and, later modern, birds for millions of years.

More importantly, many of them were in the same size and weight range as modern birds. To make matters more complicated there is the category of what are popularly known as ‘archaic’ birds which were closer to modern birds than dinosaurs, but did not survive the K-T extinction. And then are groups such as the Enantiornithes, who also did not survive that extinction. Or maybe some semi-birds, such as Qinornis, did. The point I am trying to make is as follows: the degree of shared genetics, physiology, size and habitat overlap of bird-like dinosaurs and “true” birds makes it very hard to explain why one group survived but the others did not. And guess what.. there were tons of small to medium-sized dinosaurs with beaks (and no teeth) similar in size to emus, ostriches and even large pheasants. Some of you might attribute this to the ability of true birds to fly better than bird-like dinosaurs.

Well.. in that case, how do you explain the simultaneous extinction of pterosaurs who were even more accomplished flyers than modern birds. While some of the late cretaceous species, such as Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx were truly massive creatures capable of intercontinental flight, many others were of a size we today associate with large seabirds. They were an immensely successful order of flying “reptiles” which originated sometime during middle-to-late Triassic (over 200 million years ago) and kept going until the K-T extinction event. They even shared the skies with what we would today call “true” birds for over 30 million years. If the ability to fly was what supposedly saved birds, it clearly did not work for pterosaurs who were much better flyers. Also, even the late cretaceous had pterosaurs not much bigger than large ducks or geese.

In the next part, I will go into why it is so odd that crocodilians survived the K-T event but Mosasaurs did not. And let us be clear about something else, not all of them were the 50-60 foot long creatures prominently displayed in documentaries about extinct species from the late cretaceous. Then there is the issue of why a decent number of mammalian species survived. While conventional explanations posit that they survived by being small, burrowing and being omnivorous- why do those factors not apply for small (chicken to dog-sized) omnivorous dinosaurs. And why did birds, who were far more exposed to the elements than either survive?

As you can see, our current understanding of the K-T extinction event is rather incomplete. We still don’t have a proper understanding of what combination of factors caused it and why it is noticeably bigger than the previous Triasic-Jurrasic extinction. We also do not fully understand why mammals and “modern” birds survived (at least some of them) it, but small bird-like dinosaurs and so-called “archaic” birds did not.. well, most of them- at least. In the upcoming part, I hope to tackle the issue of how body weight may have affected survival. Spoiler.. it still does not explain why small dinosaurs, archaic birds and small ornithurans became extinct while crocodilians did not. While I do not have any magical answers, we could start by acknowledging that a good portion of our current theories and hypothesis about that event are inadequate.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. doldrom
    June 27, 2019 at 4:33 am

    Not much of an expert, but I seem to remember reading that there was a large scale change in vegetation and the kinds of plants, hence a big shift in the food chain. Change in vegetation precipitated by Deccan Traps warming and meteor-caused “nuclear winter” event.

  2. nyolci
    June 27, 2019 at 9:48 am

    Sorry, in my view you are clearly off the mark quite a bit in this piece.
    1. The asteroid only model is not a dogma, it’s not pushed by some authority. This is one particular model and even their advocates say that this may or may not be a good explanation, or it may or may not be an exclusive cause.

    Have a look at the popularity of comet/asteroid version vs other ones.

    2. The Deccan traps is ALWAYS mentioned as a reason, even with the possibility that they may be the sole (or main) reason.

    Mentioning it in a single sentence is not enough, especially when its gas and dust output dwarfs the comet/asteroid impact.
    3. Generally, scientists always say that our understanding for KT extinction is quite inadequate, and the asteroid/volcanism are just possibilities (not even mutually exclusive).

    They seldom admit that in public.

    4. They are always eager to tell you that reasons for this or that, small details are far from settled matter (like why this did die out but that did not, and the two are almost the same).
    5. While you say that this was x hundred thousand year before or after, you have to know the timeline is FAR FAR from settled, even in cases that look obvious at first glance. For example, the Deccan traps was not a point like phenomenon, it was ongoing for, well, who knows, how long, but it could’ve been a multiple of hundred of thousand years.

    Agree.. but we know the relative ages of various with an error of less than 10-20 k years. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2194550-dinosaur-extinction-lines-up-closely-with-timing-of-volcanic-eruptions/

    6. While there’s certainly racism in science, this particular case is a very artifical fit.

    Given the history of science and what I have seen, one can easily attribute the relative neglect of deccan traps to racism.

    • nyolci
      June 27, 2019 at 11:25 pm

      I don’t want to debate you about these things, especially racism, where you are quite right anyway. Our positions aren’t that far, and not just in racism. There’s only one particular (and small) thing, the 10-20 kyears of error, where you’re clearly mistaken. This is far from a general error box. In special and particular cases they can narrow error down to this range. Actually even the relative dating (ie. this layer is ABOVE that, so it must be LATER) has surprising problems.

      Actually there are things in science that really deserve contempt, but I don’t feel scholarship about KT extinction belongs in here. Quantum computing or AI or Economics (a real non science) are bullshit magnets. Actually you only have to observe what Elon Musk talks about to get a perfect cross section of contemporary scientific deep-BS.

    • Gp
      June 28, 2019 at 4:37 am

      Elaborate on the racism accusation AD.

      • doldrom
        June 28, 2019 at 6:03 am

        I don’t get the racism either. Because it’s India? There were no human races at that time?

  3. MikeCA
    June 28, 2019 at 11:33 am

    I am no expert on this subject, but googling around I found this article that discusses some of this research:

    https://news.berkeley.edu/2015/04/30/did-dinosaur-killing-asteroid-trigger-largest-lava-flows-on-earth/

    It seems to me that researchers in this field are looking at the Deccan traps eruptions, the Chicxulub impact and possible interactions between them to try to explain the K-T extinctions.

    While I have no experience in this field, I do have a PhD in hard sciences and worked at major research institutions for 3 or 4 years. One thing I learned is popular accounts of scientific research are usually poor. I remember many times reading a NYT story of some discovery that simply didn’t make sense. We waited for the results to be published in a scientific journal or to get a preprint of the journal article and then it would make sense.

    I found it very disappointing that even a news organization with the resources of NYT did not have science reporters that could accurately describe new discoveries. Perhaps part of the problem is most scientist are very bad at describing their work to non-scientists.

    There is definitely racism in science, just like there is everyplace else. My guess is there is probably some regional bias also. It is easier for US based researchers to do work in North America, so more of the work is done in North America. US/European based researchers do less work in Asia, because it is more expensive and difficult to get permission. While clearly some research is being done in Asia and India, much more is done in North America and Europe.

  1. June 29, 2019 at 9:33 am

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