Dinosaur/plant interactions: testing co-evolutionary patterns over geological timescales

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Co-evolution happens when two (or more) species interact with each other so that the evolution of one influences the evolution of the other, and vice versa (e.g., flowers and insect pollinators). Experimental studies on living organisms show that co-evolution plays a major role in promoting evolutionary radiations, but it is unclear to what extent this has been important in the history of life. On geological timescales, many plausible examples have been proposed (e.g., in mammals 'arms races' in brain size and running ability between predators and prey), but few of these have been tested quantitatively, and they remain controversial. Here, we propose to provide tests of the numerous hypotheses that have posited co-evolutionary interactions between herbivorous dinosaurs and plants during the Cretaceous Period (145-65 million years ago). These organisms provide a model system that can be viewed as a test case for assessing the importance of co-evolution over extended timescales. We will construct a comprehensive database on the global distributions of Cretaceous dinosaurs and plants, based on an exhaustive survey of the scientific literature. To these data we will add information on environmental conditions at the time (e.g., climate), and all of this will be incorporated into a Geographical Information System (GIS). The GIS is a computer-based tool that allows one to visualise and analyse spatial information. This will enable us to make detailed comparisons of the distributions in time and space of dinosaurs and plants (e.g., flowering plant families vs. specific dinosaur genera; large dinosaurs > 1, 000 kg vs. types of foliage). We will also compare the fossil records of the two groups with other variables (e.g., climate, latitude, rock type). GIS will allow these associations to be tested at an unprecedented level of detail, and it will also provide statistical tools for analysing such patterns quantitatively. This project represents a novel application of GIS techniques to testing of evolutionary questions over extended geological timescales. Using this approach we will test a variety of hypotheses of dinosaur-plant co-evolution in the following broad categories: (1) proposed correlations between the evolution of dinosaur jaw mechanisms and Cretaceous plant groups; (2) environmental controls on the distribution of dinosaur and plant taxonomic groups in time and space; (3) co-evolutionary and ecological associations between dinosaur and plant body types (highlighting, for example, comparisons between variables such as dinosaur body mass and plant morphology); (4) tight co-evolutionary interactions between specific plant and dinosaur species. The presence of specific repeated associations between dinosaur and plant groups or body types would be consistent with co-evolution; conversely, the lack of such associations would falsify co-evolutionary hypotheses. Negative results could, however, provide a clear signal of dinosaur/plant environmental preferences at a hitherto unprecedented level of accuracy. The proposed tests also address the more general issue of whether hypotheses of co-evolution are actually supported by the fossil evidence. This analysis will therefore provide the first empirical test of the extent to which herbivorous dinosaurs and plants can be said to have co-evolved during the Cretaceous Period.
Description It was previously suggested that dinosaurs and plants might have coevolved, with changes in dinosaur feeding behaviour driving major shifts in floral diversity and vice versa. We tested these ideas by compiling and comparing dinosaur and plant diversity and abundance in time and space to see if coincident patterns of change could offer support for coevolutionary hypotheses. These changes were visualised using GIS, which was a novel application of this set of techniques to palaeontology. We discovered that there are no statistically supportable coincident changes in the dinosaur and plant records, implying that coevolutionary interactions at the lower taxonomic levels was unlikely. Similarly, consideration of the time of origin of key biological features (e.g. feeding adaptations, plant defences) also found no evidence for coevolution between dinosaurs and plants.
Exploitation Route This work can be used as an introduction to various areas of evolutionary and environmental biology as it deals with global questions relating to organismal distribution and macroevolutionary and macroecological processes. It also provided several new ways of analysing spatiotemporal distribution and diversity data in deep time.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Our findings have primarily been used by the academic community with around 80+ citations for the work so far. The work extended the use of GIS applications to palaeobiology. In addition, the work was also used as a basis for various public outreach activities at the Natural HIstory Museum (Nature Live talks, 6th form schools events) and at talks to various geological and undergraduate student societies around the UK.
First Year Of Impact 2007
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Nature Live, Natural History Museum 2009 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on dinosaur plant coevolution to the Nature Live series at the NHM. Around 60 members of the general public attended, with numerous questions afterward.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009