Tyrannosaurus rex scene 3D illustration

(© warpaintcobra - stock.adobe.com)

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Climate change may be responsible for the success of the dinosaurs, according to new research.

Researchers say rising temperatures, rather than competition, enabled ancient reptiles to diversify — leading to the success of the biggest creatures that ever walked the Earth.

The phenomenon opened the door to the emergence of iconic plant eaters like Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus. They were able to thrive and expand across new territories after the planet warmed up around 200 million years ago.

It followed a mysterious mass extinction linked to vast volcanic eruptions that sent the world into darkness and an extreme cold period.

Unable to cope, more than three-quarters of land and marine species disappeared from history. They included large terrestrial vertebrates such as the giant armadillo-like aetosaurs.

Early dinosaurs survived thanks to thick coverings of feathers. Afterwards, they took advantage by moving from being a minority group to those who were in charge. The University of Birmingham team analyzed computer models of prehistoric global climate conditions such as temperature and rainfall with.

They compared them with data on the different locations of dinosaurs taken from sources such as the Paleobiology Database. It showed primitive sauropods with their long tails and necks and small heads were the runaway success story of a turbulent period of evolution.

Did climate change pave the way for the dinosaurs?
Dinosaur ancestors are shown in this artist’s conception of life in the Chañares formation approximately 235 million years ago. (CREDIT: Victor O. Leshyk, www.paleovista.com)

Today’s animals are adapting just like the dinosaurs

The findings have implications for today’s climate dilemma. Animals have already started shape-shifting to cope with weather-related stresses.

They are growing bigger ears, mouths, and limbs to help regulate body temperature, biologists report.

“What we see in the data suggests that instead of dinosaurs being outcompeted by other large vertebrates, it was variations in climate conditions that were restricting their diversity. But once these conditions changed across the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, they were able to flourish,” says lead author Dr. Emma Dunne, now at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nurnberg, in a media release.

“The results were somewhat surprising, because it turns out that sauropods were really fussy from the get-go: later in their evolution they continue to stay in warmer areas and avoid polar regions.”

Dinosaurs began emerging about 230 million years ago. They went on to become one the most successful animal groups in history — ruling the land for 165 million years.

“Climate change appears to have been really important in driving the evolution of early dinosaurs. What we want to do next is use the same techniques to understand the role of climate in the next 120 million years of the dinosaur story,” concludes study co-author Professor Richard Butler from the University of Birmingham.

The study is in the journal Current Biology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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