Supercomputer scours fossil record for Earth’s hidden extinctions

Source: Nature

Palaeontologists have a fuzzy view of Earth’s history. An incomplete fossil record and imprecise dating techniques make it hard to pinpoint events that happened within geological eras spanning millions of years. Now, a period that saw a boom in animal complexity and one of Earth’s greatest mass extinctions is coming into sharp focus.

Using the world’s fourth most powerful supercomputer, Tianhe II, a team of scientists based mostly in China mined a database of more than 11,000 fossil species that lived from around 540 million to 250 million years ago. The result is a history of life during this period, the early Palaeozoic era, that can pinpoint the rise and fall of species during diversifications and mass extinctions to within about 26,000 years. It is published on 16 January in Science1.

“It is kind of amazing,” says Peter Wagner, a palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, who was not involved in the work. Being able to look at species diversity on this scale is like going from a system where “people who lived in the same century are considered to be contemporaries, to one in which only people who lived during the same 6-month period are deemed to be contemporaries”, he writes in an essay accompanying the study2.