General Article Rainforest collapse in prehistoric times changed the course of evolution

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Emma Dunne, University of Birmingham

Over 750,000 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest have been cleared since 1970 – a fifth of the total. As a result, many of the animals that live there are threatened with extinction. But this isn’t the first time the Earth has seen its rainforests shrink. Toward the end of the Carboniferous period, around 307m years ago, the planet’s environment shifted dramatically, and its vast tropical rainforests vanished.

Palaeontologists have previously struggled to work out how this rainforest collapse affected the first ancient vertebrate animals that lived there – the early tetrapods. This is because the fossil record for this time is patchy and incomplete. My colleagues and I have now published new research that reveals how the collapse initially caused the number of species to fall, affecting water-loving amphibians the most. But this event ultimately paved the way for the ancestors of modern reptiles, mammals and birds – known as the amniotes – to ...

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