This project will improve our understanding of how terrestrial life diversified after the largest extinction event of the last 500 million years. This event took place just over 252 million years ago at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods, when more than 70% of terrestrial animals went extinct. The fossil record is one of the main sources of data for many questions concerning the history of life on Earth. For the end-Permian event, our understanding of what occurred on land is known almost entirely from just two places - Russia and South Africa. This new research will build a database of fossil material belonging to terrestrial vertebrate animals from two additional places - Tanzania and Zambia. Before the extinction the fossil communities at those two new locations were similar to those of South Africa, but afterwards they were very different, and included new animals such as close relatives of mammals and, surprisingly, early relatives of the first dinosaurs. This research will combine data collected from recent research with that stored in museums across Europe and Africa to develop the most extensive fossil database of end-Permian land animals. This will allow paleontologists to determine diversification patterns across a larger region than has ever been done for this time period, and to discover the reasons that particular species survived the largest mass extinction event of all time and subsequently thrived.

This project will synthesize several facets of diversity among terrestrial tetrapods, including species richness, evenness, relative abundances, trophic structure, and ecological niche diversity, and adds a new component of geographical complexity from poorly-sampled basins in Tanzania and Zambia (TZAM). Substantial fieldwork there in recent years has confirmed that the sedimentary rocks can be correlated with those of South Africa and Russia, and can therefore act as independent tests of hypotheses about the extinction and recovery processes. Preliminary data indicate that a homogeneous fauna existed between TZAM and South Africa before the extinction event, but that during the recovery process ecosystems fragmented, resulting in increased levels of endemism and biogeographic differentiation. This project aims to test hypotheses related to ecological structure and biogeographic patterns of vertebrate communities on either side of the end-Permian extinction, both within and between basins. Additionally, the researchers will test in deep time an ecological hypothesis developed for extant species, the abundance-range hypothesis.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Samuel Scheiner
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University of Washington
United States
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