Ancient mutant pollen tells a tale...

09 October 2003

Could ancient mutant conifer pollen be used to detect early signs of extreme atmospheric changes, such as damage to the ozone layer, and to help explain why dinosaurs are extinct?

Until recently, scientists studying fossilised pollen believed that the Earth's ancient ecosystem supported a diverse range of conifer flora. While studying the secrets of trapped pollen in Russia and China, a team of international scientists discovered that many of the previously identified conifer pollen species were in fact mutations of the same species.

Dr Clinton Foster, from Geoscience Australia, Canberra, and Dr Sergey Afonin, from the Palaeontological Institute, Moscow, have suggested that extreme and sudden changes in the atmosphere had stressed many species of conifers and caused them to produce mutant pollen.

"About 250 million years ago the world was an alien place, with what is now Russia and China separated by thousands of kilometres and an immense ocean," said Dr Foster. "At that time there was an extreme change in the environment which caused conifers to produce mutant pollen."

"The only thing that linked the two land masses was the air around them. Sudden and drastic changes in the atmosphere, such as those caused by massive volcanic eruptions, would have released huge amounts of dust and gases into the air."

"The extreme atmospheric change would have resulted in damage to the ozone layer and a subsequent increase in Ultra Violet B light. This caused many ancient conifers to produce mutant pollen with one, none, three or more sack-like structures instead of the usual two."

"These tiny, almost invisible conifer pollen can be used to detect extreme atmospheric changes in our environment, such as damage to the ozone layer," said Dr Foster.

"We are seeing these mutations in pine pollen from areas around Chernobyl, as a result of the nuclear power plant fallout," said Dr Afonin.

The team predict that at other sites of mass extinctions of flora and fauna they will find similar evidence of mutated plant pollen and spores in ancient rocks. "As well as continuing to study the Permian Triassic extinction, the younger dinosaur extinction event of some 65-milion years ago, would be a good place to test the theory" said Dr Foster.

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