The diversity of 85-million-year-old European freshwater snails was influenced by global climate change

Onset of Late Cretaceous diversification in Europe’s freshwater gastropod fauna links to global climatic and biotic events

Summarized by Jordan Orton. Jordan Orton is a geology major at the University of South Florida. Currently, he is a senior. He plans to work for the water management district to help protect and preserve the aquifer system to ensure we have plenty of safe water to drink and use. When he’s not studying geology, he loves to watch movies, garden, play board games, and go on little adventures. 

What was the hypothesis being tested? The hypothesis of this paper is to determine which factors influenced the rate of speciation (the rate that new distinct species evolve from a common ancestor) to increase so rapidly. Was it because of annual precipitation, average temperature, geographic distance, or continental area (which is determined by the sea level)?

What data were used? Data for this study was collected previously by the same authors and includes estimates of temperature, precipitation, and other variables by geographic location. Their data set also included taxonomic records of 3,122 species of snails represented in this fossil record.

Methods: They compared the results of a birth-death model (a statistical model of how the population of a species changes over time) and a multivariate birth-death analysis (a more complex statistical model to estimate population changes over time that takes into account several contributing factors) with shifts from a 10-million-year timeframe before the peak in speciation of snails to a 10-million-year timeframe after the peak in speciation of snails in order to determine which of the four variables in the hypothesis most affected the rate of speciation.

Results: The researchers analyzed four factors that may have contributed the most to this increase in diversity of snails: annual precipitation, mean annual temperature, geographic distance, and continental area (which is a function of sea level rise and fall). According to the results of the analyses and models, the factors that had the most influence for so many species of snails evolving was a reduction in continental area (i.e., sea level rise) and an increase in geographic distance. 

A reduction in continental area means that sea levels rose and flooded parts of the continent, creating new niche habitats that are brackish (slightly saline) to freshwater. This allows species that can tolerate the less salty waters have a place to flourish and escape predation from marine organisms. This coincided with the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution, a bloom in diversity of flowering plant life, and high global water surface temperatures, which also increased marine animal diversity. The creation of these new habitats allowed multiple species to develop and feed from varying types of new flowering plants that were also diversifying in the new habitats. Over time, these organisms evolved into new species that specialized which plants they consumed (similar to the example of Darwin’s finches). The secondary factor that allowed for this increase in diversity of snails is that there was a greater distance between continents, so there was more habitable area for the snails to spread out into. Because the snails venture out further apart, they don’t have the opportunity to intermingle with each other as much, which causes more species to develop

The rate of extinction of snails was consistent through each of these 10-million-year windows, so the rate of extinction wasn’t particularly affected by these four factors. It is likely that there was a decline in the rate of speciation from 85 Mya to 80 Mya due to interspecies competition. Interspecies competition is when there are too many different species competing for a limited resource, so there is a decline in population.

This figure consists of four bar graphs: speciation rate from 95-85 Mya, speciation rate from 85-75 Mya, extinction rate from 95-85 Mya, and extinction rate from 85-75 Mya. The x axis is a range from -7.5 to 2.5 and the y-axis is the time period for that graph. Each graph has 5 factors that are correlated to rate of speciation or extinction: diversity, annual precipitation, mean annual temperature, geographic distance, and continental area. The factors that correlate most with increasing the rate of diversity from 95-85 Mya are an increase in geographic distance and a decrease in continental area, the factor that correlates most with the decline of the rate of speciation from 85-75 Mya is diversity. The rate of extinction from 95-85 Mya was not correlated to any of the factors, and the rate of extinction from 85-75 Mya was correlated to a decrease in continental area. The other variables: annual precipitation and mean annual temperature had a small effect on the data.
This figure shows the correlation strength of the four variables from the hypothesis plus the effect diversity has on the rate of speciation and extinction in the time period 95-85 Mya and 85-75 Mya. The factors that correlate most with influencing the rate of speciation in the period of 95-85 Mya are a decrease in continental area and an increase in geographic distance, while the factor that correlates most to influencing the rate of speciation in the period of 85-75 Mya was diversity. The rate of extinction was not heavily influenced by any of these variables from 95-85 Mya, but the drop in extinction rate from 85-75 Mya was influenced by a decrease in continental area.

Why is this study important? This study is important because there hasn’t been much research into the factors that drove the diversity of species of European freshwater snails; the marine and terrestrial snails are more studied and better understood.

Broader Implications beyond this study: Sea levels and average annual temperature are rising today. If we want to understand what sort of impact human activity is having on the increasing and decreasing rates of speciation of snails, we need to understand how they were affected by the paleoclimate (historical climate). We need to see how snails reacted to these conditions in the past to have a baseline that we can compare to how they react now to the same conditions (which are now being driven by humans).  Scientists can then determine how human activity (habitat destruction, nutrification, etc.) is affecting their rates of speciation. 

Citation: Neubauer, T. A., & Harzhauser, M. (2022). Onset of late cretaceous diversification in Europe’s freshwater gastropod fauna links to global climatic and biotic events. Scientific Reports, 12, 1–6.