(CNN)More than 250 million years ago, something huge happened to the Earth: the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction (PTME), which wiped out almost all of the planet’s species. Now a group of scientists has uncovered important details about how the event’s survivors adapted in a harsh, drought-stricken stretch of South Africa. The Conversation Africa’s science and technology editor Natasha Joseph asked lead researcher Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink to explain what she and her colleagues have learnt — and what this might teach us about species’ adaptation to climate change.
Lots of research has been done about this period and its impact. What was your research trying to understand, specifically?
There have been five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history and the PTME was by far the most catastrophic, killing 70% of all terrestrial species and somewhere between 80% and 96% of all marine species. The environment changed from a world with abundant vegetation, large meandering rivers and a temperate climate to a highly seasonal, drought-stricken, unpredictable environment. The world’s ecosystems did not fully recover until some five million years after the extinction event.
We also obtained body size data by measuring the skull lengths of as many therapsid specimens as possible. These measurements were used to compile body size distributions so we could compare the demographics between Permian and Triassic therapsid species. All the data were then combined to assess the ecology of Permian and Triassic therapsids.
A Lystosaurus skeleton, which was examined to understand how the species adapted to a massive extinction event.
We also used the data to create a theoretical model showing what kind of features would have helped the post-extinction therapsids to survive. The bone microstructure and body size data showed that Early Triassic therapsids grew quickly to skeletal and reproductive maturity and then died at young ages. The simulations of population growth supported our results by showing that reproducing at young ages would indeed have helped the survivors to persist in the harsh, unpredictable post-extinction environment.
Your work focused on extinct species. What are its applications today? What can it tell us about how species might cope with another big “die-out”?
Research on past extinctions provides data on how ecosystems change in response to severe climate change. It also shows how species adapt to their new environment. This information can be applied to today’s world, which is currently in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.
We can use information from the past to predict which species might survive and which may be more sensitive to extinction. In this way we can learn how to conserve susceptible species such as those that take many years to reach adulthood. Those that take longer to breed or have few young may be more likely to become extinct than those that breed when they are still young and have many babies.
Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/14/opinions/mass-extinction-conversation/index.html