April 23, 2012
First Fruitful, Then Futile: Ammonites Or The Boon And Bane Of Many Offspring
For 300 million years, they were the ultimate survivors. They successfully negotiated three mass extinctions, only to die out eventually at the end of the Cretaceous along with the dinosaurs: Ammonoids, or ammonites as they are also known, were marine cephalopods believed to be related to today's squid and nautiloids. Ammonoids changed their reproductive strategy early on in the course of evolution. However, what was once a successful initial strategy may well have proved to be a fatal boomerang at the end of the Cretaceous, as an international team of researchers headed by paleontologists from the University of Zurich demonstrate in a study recently published in the science journal Evolution.
Embryos already had coiled shells
Smaller hatchlings, more offspring
There were two more evolutionary trends that coincided with the increasingly more tightly coiled shells: The size of the embryonic shells shrank increasingly over time — the hatchlings became smaller and smaller. In parallel, the shell size of fully grown animals increased and, on the whole, the animals became increasingly bigger. Based on this, the researchers deduced that the number of offspring in ammonoids rocketed during the Devonian Period. This is confirmed by discoveries of substantial clusters of fossilized embryonic shells at the end of the Devonian Period and more recent deposits.
"The large number of offspring could have been the key to the rapid proliferation of the ammonoids in the aftermath of each mass extinction," De Baets suspects. His hypothesis is supported by the fact that precisely the groups with smaller, loosely coiled embryonic shells and proportionately fewer offspring died out in certain Devonian extinction events. Nevertheless, the once successful reproductive strategy of many offspring appears to have turned against them at the end of the Cretaceous Period: The ammonoids died out. Only nautiloids have survived until today: They are characterized by large young and a small number of offspring. Exactly how this circumstance had a positive impact upon the survival of the nautiloids is unknown. All that is clear, according to De Baets, is that nautiloids are extremely vulnerable with their reproductive strategy nowadays in view of overfishing.
Image Caption: These marcasite-coated ammonites were discovered during the re-development of the railway station in Bielefeld, Germany. Credit: Picture: Paul Marx / PIXELIO
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