Climate change played a key role in the dominance of the earliest dinosaurs, a new study suggests.
The identifiable ancestors of Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus were particular beneficiaries of changing environmental conditions during the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic, about 201 million years ago.
While the transition between the two eras saw mass extinction events that wiped out many large organisms, some organisms enjoyed the planet’s warming temperatures and expanded into new territories.
The findings by an international team of paleontologists, including the Universities of Birmingham and Bristol in the UK, suggest that climate – rather than competition with other animals – allowed these dinosaurs to thrive.
“Climate change appears to have played a very important role in driving the evolution of early dinosaurs,” said co-author Professor Richard Butler from the University of Birmingham.
He said the next step is to use the same technique to understand the role of climate in the dinosaurs’ remaining time on Earth.
What are these technologies?
Computer models of prehistoric global climate conditions, such as temperature and rainfall, were compared with information about the locations of various dinosaurs at the time.
It suggests that the long-necked ancestors, known as sauropods, and other similar creatures, with their small heads and long tails, were the runaway success stories of a turbulent evolutionary period.
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Dr Emma Dunne explained: “What we’re seeing in the data suggests that it wasn’t dinosaurs that were outmatched by other large vertebrates, but that changing climatic conditions limited their diversity.
“But once those conditions changed at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, they were able to flourish.
“The results were somewhat surprising, because it turns out that sauropods were very picky to begin with.
“Late in their evolution, they continued to stay in warmer regions and avoid polar regions.”
The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the European Research Council, is published in Current Biology.