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Dicynodon graphite plants flt

Dicynodon, an ancient relative of mammals, at the end of the Permian. (Marlene Hill Donnelly).

Yesterday, Ken Angielczyk and I published our most recent paper on the Permian-Triassic mass extinction (PTME) in the journal Science. In a nutshell, we examined a series of paleocommunities spanning the extinction, from the Late Permian to the Middle Triassic, and modelled the stability of their food webs. We compared the models to hypothetical alternatives, where we varied parameters such as how species are divided among guilds, or ecological “jobs”, and the numbers of interactions that species have. One of our very interesting discoveries is that the real food webs were always the most stable, or amongst the most stable of the models, even during the height of the extinction! That’s remarkable, given the devastating loss of species at the end of the Permian. Our other discovery is that the ability to remain highly stable during the extinction stemmed from the more rapid extinction of small, terrestrial vertebrate species. That’s not something we would predict given our experience with modern and ongoing extinctions, where larger vertebrate species are considered to be at greater risk. And finally, our last interesting observation is that the early recovery, the immediate aftermath during the Early Triassic, was an exception to the above. That community was not particularly stable, which seems to have been the result of the rapid evolutionary diversification of the extinction survivors, and the arrival of immigrants from neighbouring regions.

Some aspects of the paper are quite technical, and take advantage of fantastic new paleontological data and recent developments in theoretical ecology. Therefore, over the next few posts I’ll go through what we did, and how we did it, using a more “plain language” approach. In the meanwhile, the paper was covered by a number of news outlets, and here’s my favourite!

5 things we learned from the mass extinction study that’s “the first of its kind”“, The Irish Examiner.