Mass Extinction Event Spared Europe (Mostly)

The comet impact that wiped out the dinosaurs had little effect on life in Europe.

When a comet crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, all hell broke loose. Scientists have guessed at the scene: a world enshrouded in ashen darkness leftover from the cosmic impact that left almost nothing -- including the dinosaurs -- standing.

But a new study shows that in western Europe at least, the effects were far less terrifying.

Fossil leaves from four million years after the impact show that plants and insects had made a full recovery.

"It looks like a healthy ecosystem at 61 million years ago," said Torsten Wappler of the University of Bonn. "You have a huge diversity of plants, and plant and insect interactions."

Wappler and a team of researchers tallied up the holes and chew marks insects left in fossil leaves unearthed in France. Depending on the patterns of munching, they could often distinguish which species fed on a particular leaf.

Previous evidence from western North America shows that up to 60 percent of plant species died out after the impact along with many insects that relied on them to survive.

It took 10 million years for life to recover.

However, in the French rocks Wappler found a continent bristling with 70 species of plants and abundant traces of insect munching. There are even signs that early bee species had cropped up and were beginning to colonize the verdant continent.

The team's study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"I'm surprised that the effect is so different in Europe," Douglas Nichols of the United States Geological Survey in Denver said. "We have overwhelming data from western North America. In Europe there has just not been a record, until now."

Nichols added that we still don't know what happened in Europe at the exact geological moment that the comment struck; rocks containing the appropriate fossils remain elusive.

But the likelihood is that the continent's distance from the comet impact spared it the worst of the damage. A single record from New Zealand shows a similarly muted impact on plants there.

It wasn't enough to save the dinosaurs, though. The findings suggest there was no global inferno, but instead a blanket of debris that cast a dim pall over the planet.

Unable to access sunlight, plants that were critical sources of food quickly died. Even areas like western Europe, where the effects were less severe, the famine lasted long enough to wipe the big animals out.

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