The magnitude and pace of terrestrial plant extinction and macroecological change associated with the Triassic/Jurassic (Tr/J) mass extinction boundary have not been quantified using paleoecological data. However, tracking the diversity and ecology of primary producers provides an ideal surrogate with which to explore patterns of ecosystem stability, collapse, and recovery and to explicitly test for gradual versus catastrophic causal mechanisms of extinction.
We present an analysis of the vegetation dynamics in the Jameson Land Basin, East Greenland, spanning the Tr/J extinction event, from a census collected paleoecological data set of 4303 fossil leaf specimens, in an attempt to better constrain our understanding of the causes and consequences of the fourth greatest extinction event in earth history. Our analyses reveal (1) regional turnover of ecological dominants between Triassic and Jurassic plant communities, (2) marked structural changes in the vegetation as reflected by potential loss of a mid-canopy habit, and (3) decline in generic-level richness and evenness and change in ecological composition prior to the Tr/J boundary; all of these findings argue against a single catastrophic causal mechanism, such as a meteorite impact for Tr/J extinctions. We identify various key ecological and biological traits that increased extinction risk at the Tr/J boundary and corroborate predictions of meta-population theory or plant ecophysiological models. These include ecological rarity, complex reproductive biology, and large leaf size.
Recovery in terms of generic-level richness was quite rapid following Tr/J extinctions; however, species-level turnover in earliest Jurassic plant communities remained an order of magnitude higher than observed for the Triassic. We hypothesize, on the basis of evidence for geographically extensive macrofossil and palynological turnover across the entire Jameson Land Basin, that the nature and magnitude of paleoecological changes recorded in this study reflect wider vegetation change across the whole region. How exactly these changes in dominance patterns of plant primary production affected the entire ecosystem remains an important avenue of future research.