The megaherbivore gap after the non-avian dinosaur extinctions modified trait evolution and diversification of tropical palms
Renske E. Onstein, W. Daniel Kissling, and H. Peter Linder
Summarized by Makayla Palm
What data were used? Qualitative data from modern palm tree fruit, phylogenetic data, and palm tree fossils are used in order to observe changes over time in the taxon Arecaceae, or the palm tree, from the Paleogene Period. After the end-Cretaceous extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, mega-herbivores, or any herbivore larger than 1,000 kg ( ~2200 lbs), were nowhere to be found. For the most part, small mammals were left foraging for food, and angiosperms (flower-bearing plants) were able to catch a break. The combination of mammalian seed-spreaders and lack of large herbivores preying on angiosperms (palms in this case) meant that the plants were able to increase in numbers without worrying about defenses. These furry seed-spreaders (small animals that pooped out their seeds) were still spreading, allowing plants to grow and didn’t evolve many defense mechanisms like rough leaves or spines. The researchers hypothesized that they would observe three things about palm diversity in the fossil material from this time: the origin of plant armature (or defense structures like spikes) in the Cretaceous Period because of many large herbivores, the decrease in armature during the Post-Cretaceous Paleogene Megaherbivore Gap (PMHG), and the change in fruit size over time as the plants were able to diversify.
Methods: Measurements of the palm tree fruit fossil material were taken in order to compare how fruit size changed over time within the megaherbivore gap and observations were made on when these changes in size happened, which supplemented the phylogenetic analysis. Living palms were observed in modern habitats, as were their interactions with larger herbivores of modern times to better understand how the fossil palms may have interacted with herbivores from the Paleogene.
Results: The hypothesis that the first armature appeared in the Cretaceous was confirmed by fossil material, which indicates an increase in defense likely due to megaherbivores. The armature of plants with larger fruit decreased over time, which also supports the hypothesis of losing these defense structures over time with less predation. Despite the disappearance of megaherbivores in the end-Cretaceous, fruit size stayed relatively large (above 4cm). Plants with larger fruit diversified on a constant scale over time, whereas plants with smaller fruit decreased in diversity, counter to the second hypothesis. Overall, some hypotheses were supported, and some were not.
Why is this study important? A lot of end-Cretaceous Period studies focus on the end of the dinosaurs, what caused the mass extinction, and how the age of mammals began. This study shows a different perspective on a well-studied time period by using a combination of paleobotany and vertebrate paleontology, and observing how the absence of large herbivores affected how ancient palm trees changed ecologically. This documented diversity opened new doors for angiosperm evolution and led to an increase in forests, setting the stage for the next era of geologic time in North America, the Cenozoic.
The big picture: The Paleogene megaherbivore gap is a time in geologic history where the absence of large herbivores after the non-avian dinosaur extinction greatly affected ecosystems and the change in the landscape to more dense forests. The lack of large herbivores to eat plants allowed plants to evolve fewer defensive structures and larger fruit, which allowed them to spread farther distances and in greater numbers, because of the increase in seeds.
Article Citation: Onstein, R. E., Kissling, W. D., & Linder, H. P. (2022). The megaherbivore gap after the non-avian dinosaur extinctions modified trait evolution and diversification of tropical palms. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 289(1972), 20212633.