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The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting mass

extinctions and aridification


Bain, Meggan (5997895), Downing, Lara (5950384) & Dub, Andr. (5944058)
PaleoclimatologyPaleoecology 2017



















The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting m ass extinctions and aridification

The science behind the transition of the Eocene and Oligocene and the resulting mass
extinctions is argumentative, with many divergent theories on which event caused the
extinctions and aridification such as extended volcanism and the impact of several astronomical
bodies (H.B Vonhof et. al., 2000). Both theories lead to the same hypothesized outcome of
mass extinction, aridification, a reduction of greenhouse effect at the poles, the creation of the
Antarctic ice sheet and a drop in annual temperature and sea level. The leading theory is that
no one single event triggered these events but was a combination of them all (Hooker, 2004). It
has been argued by some early researchers that the reason for the extinction was an annual
cooling, yet (Ivany, 2000) refutes that saying instead that it was a rapid cooling of winter
temperatures of four degrees which caused the extinctions. This global cooling has also led to
the aridification in, specifically, lower Asian latitudes (Li et. al., 2016). This Letter to Nature aims
to explore the varying theories leading to triggering of the Eocene-Oligocene transition, and
what this meant for the planet. Throughout this research it was evident that each event had
variable causes and effect on the climate and resulting aridification and extinctions.

Between ca. 34Ma and 33.5Ma marks the Eocene-Oligocene transition with diverse geological
evidence from around the world indicating cooling, ice growth, sea-level fall, and accelerated
extinction (P. N. Pearson et. al 2008). This transition between epochs in the Earths continued
development is described as an abrupt cooling step associated with the onset of glaciation in
Antarctica 34 million years ago. The extreme shift in greenhouse gas concentrations has been
repeatedly linked to climatic changessuch as the ones listed at the beginning of this
paragraphboth in modern day and within the Cenozoic Era, as shown in Figure 1. The reason
for these changes in a relatively short period of time is argued by many academics who present
multiple theories, however, there is still no single feasible mechanism or agreeable hypothesis.
Multiple case studies will be used to further explore the theories and the resulting aridification
and mass extinctions. For example, Caves et. al (2016) who did research in Central Asia and
Dupont-Nivet (2007) who studied the Chesapeake Bay crater impact and the Popigai crater in
central Siberia with a focus on aridification. To begin this Letter to Nature, first a brief outline will
be provided on the Eocene, Oligocene and the transition between these two periods, followed
by the likely causes of the transition, the evidence for these theories, and the resulting changes,
with a focus on aridification in the Tibetan Plateau and the extinction of the foraminiferal family.


What defines the Eocene-Oligocene boundary? What are the leading theories on why this
transition occurred? What were the resulting changes to the planets climate and organisms,
and what evidence is there for this?

The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting m ass extinctions and aridification


Figure 1: Geological Time Scale (GTS) of the eras and epochs during the Earths climatic
progression (source: unknown)

Known as a link between the archaic world of the tropical Eocene and the more modern
ecosystems of the Miocene, the transition is an important part of the Geological time scale
(GTS), however, science has found it difficult to come to a conclusion on what catalyzed the
change. The transition is marked by a major extinction event called the Grande Coupure (the
"Great Break" in continuity) or the EoceneOligocene Extinction Event, however, the extinction
was a result of a cooling climate. The Earth went from a warm, tropical, greenhouse climate to a
more moderate climate, similar to that of today. The greenhouse climatic conditions retreated to
the equator, whilst the poles became increasingly cooler, eventually forming the first Antarctic
ice sheet. This large shift in the planet's climate and the resulting mass extinctions have not
been linked to an obvious single major impact, such as that of the dinosaurs. Since the
dinosaurs were wiped out around 65 Ma, this was the most significant interval in Earths
history. Another theory is that extended volcanic activity is one of the driving forces; this has a
cooling effect because the excessive volume of gases and particulates ejected into the
atmosphere block incoming solar radiation. Another theory is that the extinctions were caused
by several large meteorite impacts that occurred around this time. It is hypothesized that one of
these events caused the Chesapeake bay crater impact, and another at the Popigai crater in
central Siberia, which scattered debris as far as Europe. Unlike the theories on the volcanism
and meteorites, which are specific to catastrophic events, there are other more generalized
theories behind the global cooling.

The gradual decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide is thought to haveat some point during
the late Eocenereached a threshold; triggering the beginning of the Antarctic ice sheets and in
turn the beginning of the Oligocene. Global cooling was accelerated with the isolation of

The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting m ass extinctions and aridification

Antarctica as Australia moved northward, resulting in: the development of a circum-Antarctic


circulation, growth of the Antarctic ice sheet and a change from a thermospheric to thermohaline
circulation. However, no definitive evidence was found that the multiple late Eocene impact
events directly contributed to the climatic deterioration that was already in progress.



Figure 2 depicting the various changes in Earths climate during the Eocene-Oligocene
transition (C. Lear et. al. 2008)
Evidence for the climatic changes during the transition can be found both in the marine record
and terrestrial record. The marine records, especially the deep sea record, indicate the
disappearance of tropical planktonic species and the presence of mid-latitude planktonic

The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting m ass extinctions and aridification

species migrating to more equatorial latitudes, which is a clear indication of the cooling of ocean
water temperature towards the poles. The terrestrial records further support this mass cooling
event through outcrops, which has been observed and studied in the Rocky Mountains in North
America. By measuring the percentage of total leaf margins, an estimated temperature of the
planet can be calculated during the time the plants were alive. Further evidence for the cooling
transition of the Eocene-Oligocene is the increase in deep-sea benthic foraminiferal oxygen
isotope (18O) values, which is a clear indication of a sea water temperature rise. Along with
this cooling, one of the most notable changes during this time was mass extinction.


Figure 3: Benthic Forminifera stable isotope data plotted against depth, showing the steep jump
between the upper Eocene and lower Oligocene (J. Zachos et. al. 1996)


Species extinctions are gradual and selective, affecting primarily cool-temperature-intolerant
surface dwellers. These extinctions began with the onset of global cooling during the early
middle Eocene and culminated near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Many organism were
affected during the transition, especially marine organisms. One species in particular are of
interest: the Benthic foraminifera. This species have been studied in detail, and show evidence
of suffering a mass extinction during the end of the Eocene when the Oligocene began,
correlating strongly with a drop in sea water temperature as seen above in figure 3. Pearson et

The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting m ass extinctions and aridification

al. (2008, p. 179) outlines that: turnover in the oceanic plankton included the extinction of the
foraminiferal Family Hantkeninidae, a keystone piece of evidence for the transition. Besides the
foraminiferal family, other varieties of species were also affected, such as the larger
foraminifera, resulting in the loss of some of the world's most abundant and widespread
shallow-water carbonate-secreting organisms. It was also evident that other major changes
during this time include a global expansion of grasslands, and a regression of tropical broad leaf
forests to the equatorial belt. Similarly, with the research focused on aridification in the Eocene-
Oligocene transition, it is difficult to find data that can relate these small climatic changes to a
much larger global environmental changes.

Continental aridification in Asia is generally attributed to uplift of the Tibetan plateau and to the
landsea redistributions associated with the continental collision of India and Asia, whereas
some studies suggest that past changes in Asian environment such as intensified monsoons,
increased erosion and continental aridification. During the Eocene-Oligocene transition,
Dupont-Nivet et. al (2007) argues that a single feasible mechanism to deduce this aridification
remains unresolved. However, Caves et al. (2016) further describes that around the Tibetan
Plateau, there is a rain shadow off the ranges nearby which then created a prominent shadow
and this climatic occurrence could be the reason for the separation between the boreal forest to
the north from the deserts of Central Asia. A case study of the Tibetan Plateau has allowed for
more accuracy and understanding to be gained by using magnetostratigraphy and
cyclostratigraphy to prove aridification occurred during the EoceneOligocene transition. The
evidence is portrayed by the disappearance of playa lake deposits which correlates to
aridification recorded by paleoenvironmental and palaeontological changes.

In conclusion, the possible causes and resulting effects of the Eocene-Oligocene transition
period have been explored in detail in this Letter to Nature. Each of the theories had different
effects leading to a similar outcome: global cooling. Extended volcanism is often argued to be a
triggering factor in the reduction of greenhouse effect surpassing the threshold, which resulted
in sea level drop and the creation of the Antarctic ice cap which further cooled the globe.
However, the correlation between the timing of the transition and the meteorite impacts also
suggests an influence on the resulting effects of the transition. It can be concluded that it is a
combination of multiple, or all, of the forcing events that triggered the transition, and in turn the
resulting mass extinctions and aridification.








The Eocene-Oligocene transition: possible causes, resulting m ass extinctions and aridification

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