Study Traces Impact of Ancient Mercury Pollution and Climate Change on Ferns

May 5, 2024 | by

Recent research published in Nature Communications has highlighted the profound impact of historic volcanic events on plant life, revealing that Climate change and mercury Pollution have distressed plants for millions of years. This study delves into the period around the end-Triassic mass extinction, about 201 million years ago, where extreme volcanic activity triggered significant ecological disruptions.

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Scientists from an international team, including experts from the Netherlands, China, Denmark, the UK, and the Czech Republic, examined sediment samples from Northern Germany. They focused on a drill core named Schandelah-1, which spans the transition from the uppermost Triassic to the lower Jurassic. Their findings unveiled an astonishing abundance of malformed fern spores. These anomalies ranged from wall structure abnormalities to botched meiotic divisions, indicating severe genetic disturbances.

The malformations are tied directly to increased levels of mercury (Hg) emissions from volcanic activity. Mercury, recognized as a potent neurotoxin, was propelled into the atmosphere in gaseous form by the eruptions, allowing its global dispersion. These emissions continued to affect fern populations long after the volcanic activity subsided, as indicated by the persistence of malformed spores in subsequent layers.

Remco Bos, a Ph.D. candidate at Utrecht University and lead author of the study, pointed out that such widespread fern stress is extraordinary. “The sheer amount and variety of malformed spores found shows a significant, lasting impact on these plants, which is not observed in other periods rich in fern fossils,” Bos explained.

The study also notes that ferns, known for their resilience, were among the few plant types that thrived post-extinction. They replaced trees in vast areas, adapting to radically altered environments marked by intense heat, increased rainfall, and frequent wildfires.

This research not only sheds light on the historical impacts of climate change and Pollution on plant life but also enhances our understanding of how ecosystems respond to extreme environmental stress. It emphasizes the lasting influence of toxic pollutants like mercury and highlights the robust nature of ferns that allowed them to persist and dominate landscapes during such tumultuous periods.

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