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Smithsonian study concludes Caribbean extinctions occurred 2M years after apparent cause

Environmental News
March 12, 2007

Photo: Aaron ODea collecting fossil sediments along the Caribbean Coast of Panama, August, 2006. Click photo for info

Smithsonian scientists and colleagues report a new study that may shake up the way paleontologists think about how environmental change shapes life on Earth. The researchers summarized the environmental, ecological and evolutionary consequences for Caribbean shallow-water marine communities when the Isthmus of Panama was formed. They concluded that extinctions resulting when one ocean became two were delayed by 2 million years.
Researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and London's Natural History Museum report their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 12.
Three to 4 million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama land bridge rose to connect North and South America, and divided one vast ocean into two. In response, a major extinction of marine animals that had flourished under open seaway conditions occurred on the Caribbean side of the new Isthmus.
"We may be way off-track when we search for the causes of extinctions by looking only at the time the extinctions occur in the fossil record, which is what paleontologists normally do," said Aaron O'Dea, postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "In our case, we see that most coral and snail species died off a good 2 million years after the environmental change that caused their demise."

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