K-Pg Boundary “Cretaceous–Paleogene Boundary”

What is the K-Pg Boundary?

Badlands near Drumheller, Alberta
Badlands near Drumheller, Alberta, where erosion has exposed the K-Pg boundary. Credit: Glenlarson/public domain

What is the K-Pg Boundary?

The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event, was a sudden mass extinction of some three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, approximately 66 million years ago. With the exception of some ectothermic species such as the leatherback sea turtle and crocodiles, no tetrapods weighing more than 25 kilograms (55 lb) survived. It marked the end of the Cretaceous period and with it, the entire Mesozoic Era, opening the Cenozoic Era that continues today.

In the geologic record, the K–Pg event is marked by a thin layer of sediment called the K–Pg boundary, which can be found throughout the world in marine and terrestrial rocks. The boundary clay shows high levels of the metal iridium, which is rare in the Earth’s crust, but abundant in asteroids.

As originally proposed in 1980 by a team of scientists led by Luis Alvarez and his son Walter Alvarez, it is now generally thought that the K–Pg extinction was caused by the impact of a massive comet or asteroid 10 to 15 km (6 to 9 mi) wide, 66 million years ago, which devastated the global environment, mainly through a lingering impact winter which halted photosynthesis in plants and plankton.

The impact hypothesis, also known as the Alvarez hypothesis, was bolstered by the discovery of the 180-kilometer-wide (112 mi) Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in the early 1990s, which provided conclusive evidence that the K–Pg boundary clay represented debris from an asteroid impact. The fact that the extinctions occurred simultaneously provides strong evidence that they were caused by the asteroid.

A 2016 drilling project into the Chicxulub peak ring, confirmed that the peak ring comprised granite ejected within minutes from deep in the earth, but contained hardly any gypsum, the usual sulfate-containing sea floor rock in the region: the gypsum would have vaporized and dispersed as an aerosol into the atmosphere, causing longer-term effects on the climate and food chain.

Other causal or contributing factors to the extinction may have been the Deccan Traps and other volcanic eruptions, climate change, and sea level change.

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A wide range of species perished in the K–Pg extinction, the best-known being the non-avian dinosaurs. It also destroyed a plethora of other terrestrial organisms, including certain mammals, pterosaurs, birds, lizards, insects, and plants. In the oceans, the K–Pg extinction killed off plesiosaurs and the giant marine lizards (Mosasauridae) and devastated fish, sharks, mollusks (especially ammonites, which became extinct), and many species of plankton.

It is estimated that 75% or more of all species on Earth vanished. Yet the extinction also provided evolutionary opportunities: in its wake, many groups underwent remarkable adaptive radiation—sudden and prolific divergence into new forms and species within the disrupted and emptied ecological niches. Mammals in particular diversified in the Paleogene, evolving new forms such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds, fish, and perhaps lizards also radiated.

K-Pg Boundary Extinction

The K–Pg extinction event was severe, global, rapid, and selective, eliminating a vast number of species. Based on marine fossils, it is estimated that 75% or more of all species were made extinct.

The event appears to have affected all continents at the same time. Non-avian dinosaurs, for example, are known from the Maastrichtian of North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and Antarctica, but are unknown from the Cenozoic anywhere in the world. Similarly, fossil pollen shows devastation of the plant communities in areas as far apart as New Mexico, Alaska, China, and New Zealand.

Despite the event’s severity, there was significant variability in the rate of extinction between and within different clades. Species that depended on photosynthesis declined or became extinct as atmospheric particles blocked sunlight and reduced the solar energy reaching the ground. This plant extinction caused a major reshuffling of the dominant plant groups. Omnivores, insectivores, and carrion-eaters survived the extinction event, perhaps because of the increased availability of their food sources. No purely herbivorous or carnivorous mammals seem to have survived. Rather, the surviving mammals and birds fed on insects, worms, and snails, which in turn fed on detritus (dead plant and animal matter).

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In stream communities, few animal groups became extinct because such communities rely less directly on food from living plants and more on detritus washed in from the land, protecting them from extinction. Similar, but more complex patterns have been found in the oceans. Extinction was more severe among animals living in the water column than among animals living on or in the sea floor. Animals in the water column are almost entirely dependent on primary production from living phytoplankton, while animals on the ocean floor always or sometimes feed on detritus. Coccolithophorids and mollusks (including ammonites, rudists, freshwater snails, and mussels), and those organisms whose food chain included these shell builders, became extinct or suffered heavy losses. For example, it is thought that ammonites were the principal food of mosasaurs, a group of giant marine reptiles that became extinct at the boundary. The largest air-breathing survivors of the event, crocodyliforms and champsosaurs, were semi-aquatic and had access to detritus. Modern crocodilians can live as scavengers and survive for months without food, and their young are small, grow slowly, and feed largely on invertebrates and dead organisms for their first few years. These characteristics have been linked to crocodilian survival at the end of the Cretaceous.

After the K–Pg extinction event, biodiversity required substantial time to recover, despite the existence of abundant vacant ecological niches.

Radiolaria have left a geological record since at least the Ordovician times, and their mineral fossil skeletons can be tracked across the K–Pg boundary. There is no evidence of mass extinction of these organisms, and there is support for high productivity of these species in southern high latitudes as a result of cooling temperatures in the early Paleocene. Approximately 46% of diatom species survived the transition from the Cretaceous to the Upper Paleocene, a significant turnover in species but not a catastrophic extinction.

The occurrence of planktonic foraminifera across the K–Pg boundary has been studied since the 1930s. Research spurred by the possibility of an impact event at the K–Pg boundary resulted in numerous publications detailing planktonic foraminiferal extinction at the boundary; however, there is ongoing debate between groups that think the evidence indicates substantial extinction of these species at the K–Pg boundary, and those who think the evidence supports multiple extinctions and expansions through the boundary.

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Numerous species of benthic foraminifera became extinct during the event, presumably because they depend on organic debris for nutrients, while biomass in the ocean is thought to have decreased. As the marine microbiota recovered, however, it is thought that increased speciation of benthic foraminifera resulted from the increase in food sources. Phytoplankton recovery in the early Paleocene provided the food source to support large benthic foraminiferal assemblages, which are mainly detritus-feeding. Ultimate recovery of the benthic populations occurred over several stages lasting several hundred thousand years into the early Paleocene.

Duration of K–Pg extinction

The rapidity of the extinction is a controversial issue, because some theories about the extinction’s causes imply a rapid extinction over a relatively short period (from a few years to a few thousand years) while others imply longer periods.

The issue is difficult to resolve because of the Signor–Lipps effect; that is, the fossil record is so incomplete that most extinct species probably died out long after the most recent fossil that has been found. Scientists have also found very few continuous beds of fossil-bearing rock that cover a time range from several million years before the K–Pg extinction to a few million years after it.

The sedimentation rate and thickness of K–Pg clay from three sites suggest rapid extinction, perhaps less than ten thousand years. At one site in the Denver Basin of Colorado, the ‘fern spike’ lasted about one thousand years (no more than 71 thousand years); the earliest Cenozoic mammals appeared about 185,000 years (no more than 570,000 years) after the K–Pg boundary layer was deposited.