"The K-T caused major extinction among North American plants and insects. The Western Interior U.S. was a dead zone for plants and plant-insect food webs," said Dr. Peter Wilf, assistant professor of geosciences and the David and Lucile Packard Fellow. "We know that right after the extinction, for 800,000 years, there was very low insect predation and plant diversity. We know that 9 million years afterwards, there was renewed diversity in both plants and insects. What happened in the 8 million years in between?
"In modern forests, insect diversity tracks plant populations. If there are few plants, there are few insects, and that is what we expected to see and mostly found throughout the 10-million-year Paleocene. However, we looked extremely hard to test this conventional wisdom and found some shocking exceptions that have given us new ideas about how food webs recover from mass extinction," he added.
The researchers include Wilf; Conrad C. Labandeira, curator, fossil arthropods, the Smithsonian Institution; and Kirk R. Johnson, vice president for research and collections, and Beth Ellis, paleobotany researcher, Department of Earth Sciences, Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They reported their findings in today's (Aug. 25) issue of Science.
The researchers analyzed insect-feeding damage on 14,999 fossil leaves from flowering plants found at 14 sites, 4 from latest Cretaceous, 9 from early and late Paleocene and 1 from early Eocene rocks in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota. Insects