Age of reptiles boosted by climate change, Harvard researchers say

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A group of Harvard researchers found that the Reptile Age, a period of rapid evolution of reptile species, was precipitated by 60 million years of climate change and global warming.

Researchers from the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University published a study in the journal Sciences Advances on August 19 which revealed that the Age of Reptiles began in connection with rising global temperatures spurred by a series of climate changes between the Permian and Triassic periods.

Researchers can use these findings of climate change-induced mass extinctions in the geological past to understand the modern impacts of climate change.

Tiago Simoes/Harvard

Synapsids, the ancestors of mammals, were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates of the Permian period. Previously, most paleontologists attributed the Triassic (252-200 million years ago) explosion in reptile diversity to the Permian (298-252 million years ago) mass extinctions that wiped out many competing synapsid species, giving reptilians the resources and habitats to make them the dominant group of terrestrial vertebrates.

But the new study disputes that claim.

“Our results reveal that periods of rapid climate change and global warming are associated with exceptionally high rates of anatomical change in most reptile groups as they adapt to new environmental conditions,” said Stephanie E. Pierce, lead author and Harvard professor. “This process began long before the Permian-Triassic extinction, at least 270 million years ago, indicating that the diversification of reptile body plans was not triggered by the PT extinction event as it was previously thought, but actually began tens of millions of years before that.”

Researchers can use these findings of climate change-induced mass extinctions from the geological past to understand the modern impacts of climate change and global warming on the evolution of organisms, the researchers said. Previous studies on the impact of climate change on species have mainly focused on the impact on marine species and left out terrestrial vertebrates due to lack of data. Ongoing studies can help us understand the future of reptilian evolution.

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