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  • Final Activity Report Summary - MASSEXTINCT (Biodiversity dynamics at the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event (200 million years ago): A novel approach to studying ecosystem responses ...)

Final Activity Report Summary - MASSEXTINCT (Biodiversity dynamics at the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event (200 million years ago): A novel approach to studying ecosystem responses ...)

The overall objective of MASSEXTINCT was to investigate the causes and consequences of the fourth greatest mass extinction event in Earth history at the Triassic-Jurassic (Tr-J) boundary, some 200 million years ago, thus developing an in-depth understanding of past biodiversity responses to global climate change. The Earth is currently experiencing a sixth major mass extinction due to anthropogenic causes and projecting how future global change will influence ecosystem biodiversity is a major challenge and a priority theme of European research frameworks. Our findings allow us to make these projections and inform current conservation policymakers of predicted trends.

MASSEXTINCT was established as a leading research group in pre-quaternary global change biology, positioning Ireland as a leader in this field and promoting Ireland as a hub for innovative climate research. This major study brought together a team of high calibre international researchers from varied backgrounds in order to realise the project goals, and involved successful collaboration with researchers at many other high-ranking institutions worldwide, achieving excellent and interesting results as well as further promoting Irish and Marie Curie funded research.

We developed a novel and highly multidisciplinary programme of study, tracking plant biodiversity (richness, evenness, heterogeneity) and ecology (rarity, dominance, persistence, reproductive strategy, disparity, fire history) in response to the significant Tr-J global warming, enhancing our understanding of how modern ecosystems may respond to the predicted doubling of carbon dioxide and 1-4C global warming by the end of this century. Palaeoecological studies of a large fossil plant dataset (including whole leaf, cuticle, pollen and spores) from the Late Triassic to Early Jurassic of Astartekløft, East Greenland were combined with physiological experiments on modern plant species to help us gain a detailed and informed picture of ecosystem dynamics in response to climate change.

The modern plant communities were selected as analogues for the ancient flora and were grown in experimental conditions in specially commissioned growth chambers to identify the key biological responses to changing greenhouse gas levels. Overall we have made significant advances in the understanding of ecosystem responses to climate changes of the past and this knowledge can now be used for predicting future response to current global warming trends. The research produced 6 key results in line with identified European priority research themes.

1) We analysed the pace of plant extinctions at the Tr-J boundary and identified a gradual change in ecological composition, strongly arguing against a single catastrophic causal mechanism, such as a meteorite impact, for the extinctions.
2) We identified that major ecological, structural and taxonomic shifts in vegetation occurred within the East Greenland area in response to a four-fold increase in CO2 and 4C global warming across the Tr-J boundary.
3) Using our fossil data set and experiments on modern flora we identified a number of key ecological and biological traits that increased extinction risk at the Tr-J boundary. We can now make robust projections that the ecological traits identified will increase a plant species' risk of extinction within the next 100 years.
4) We confirmed that plant functional trait diversity was more important than generic level diversity in maintaining ecosystem stability in response to global warming across the Tr-J boundary.
5) We have shown that charcoal abundance can be used as a proxy for ancient fire activity across the Tr-J global warming event, indicating a six-fold increase in fire activity in the earliest Jurassic of East Greenland.
6) These outcomes have been widely disseminated via a major public outreach programme involving lectures, children's workshops and press releases, actively enhancing public understanding of biodiversity science.

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