At least five major natural disasters have fundamentally changed the history of life on earth. But these dramatic events have also paved the way for the life that exists on our planet today. And it is plants that have coped best with these sweeping changes.
For more than 400 million years, plants have played an important role in almost every terrestrial environment on the earth. During the same period, the planet has been affected by dramatic events that have wiped out both animal and plant species, and have had a major impact on the earth’s ecosystems and biological diversity.
The results from a new study at the University of Gothenburg show that natural disasters have affected plants less than animals. This suggests that, in general, plants have been particularly good at surviving and recovering during difficult periods.
“Within the plant kingdom, events leading to the simultaneous mass eradication of species brings an opportunity for new biological diversity,” says Daniele Silvestro, the main author of the study.
This was most striking when an asteroid struck off the coast of Mexico approximately 66 million years ago, causing enormous devastation. The event had a significant impact on living environments on land, and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Surprisingly, however, it only had a limited effect on plant diversity.
Some key plant groups, for example ferns and gymnosperms such as pines and spruces, lost much of their diversity. However, flowering plants (angiosperms) thrived and experienced a considerable increase in diversity. So the asteroid strike appears to have contributed towards the dominance of flowering plants over all other plant groups in modern-day global diversity.
“Natural disasters are often seen as a bad thing, but they have been pivotal in terms of shaping the world as we know it today,” adds Alexandre Antonelli, who led the research study. “Had it not been for the asteroid strike, the dinosaurs would probably still be walking the earth, mammals would have been small and hidden in caves, and mankind would never have evolved.”