With the new timeline, diatoms achieved their peak diversity at least 10 million years before grasslands became commonplace.
"If there was a truly significant change in diatom diversity at all, it happened 30 million years ago," Rabosky said. "The shallow, gradual increase we see is totally different from the kind of exponential increase you would expect if grasslands were the cause."
As an example of that kind of increase, Rabosky turned to another fossil record: horse teeth. Before grasslands, horses had small teeth suited for chewing soft leaves. But as grasslands appeared, much hardier teeth appeared adapted to a lifetime of chewing tough, silica-studded grass leaves. Diatoms ought to show a similar evolutionary response to the sudden availability of silica, Rabosky said, but they don't.
Although the new results don't explain the current prevalence of diatoms in the ocean, Rabosky said that whatever led to diatoms' rise at the end of the Eocene, the tiny organisms may have contributed to the global cooling that followed.
"Why diatom diversity peaked for 4 to 5 million years and then dropped is a big mystery," Rabosky said. "But it corresponds with a period when the global climate swung from hothouse to icehouse. It's tempting to speculate that these tiny plankton, by taking carbon dioxide out of the air, might have helped trigger the most severe global cooling event in the past 100 million years."
|Contact: Blaine Friedlander|
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