A “Previously Unrecognized Link” – Land Plants Caused a Sudden Shift in Earth’s Composition

Planet Earth Glow

According to the researchers, the proliferation of plants completely altered the biosphere of Earth.

A new study reveals that land plants changed Earth’s composition.

According to research from the University of Southampton, the Earth’s continents’ composition suddenly shifted as a result of the evolution of land plants.

In collaboration with colleagues from Queen’s University Canada, the University of Cambridge, the University of Aberdeen, and the China University of Geosciences, Wuhan, the Southampton researchers—led by Dr. Tom Gernon—studied the effects of land plant evolution on Earth’s chemical composition over the course of the previous 700 million years.

The researchers’ findings were recently published in Nature Geoscience.

Green Ferns

Ferns were some of the first land plants to colonize the continents, with some analysis indicating that they evolved about 430 million years ago. The scientists report a step change in the composition of the continental crust at precisely this time, which they relate to fundamental changes in river systems tied to the evolution of land plants. Credit: Dr. Tom Gernon / University of Southampton

Around 430 million years ago, during the Silurian Period, when North America and Europe were connected to form the continent known as Pangaea, the evolution of land plants took place.

Plants drastically modified Earth’s biosphere (those regions of the planet’s surface where life flourishes), laying the stage for the emergence of dinosaurs around 200 million years later.

“Plants caused fundamental changes to river systems, bringing about more meandering rivers and muddy floodplains, as well as thicker soils,” says Dr. Christopher Spencer, Assistant Professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, lead author of the study. “This shift was tied to the development of plant rooting systems that helped produce colossal amounts of mud (by breaking down rocks) and stabilized river channels, which locked up this mud for long periods.”

The scientists recognized that plate tectonics connects the Earth’s surface and deep core: rivers wash mud into the oceans, and this mud is subsequently carried into the Earth’s molten interior (or mantle) at subduction zones, where it melts to produce new rocks.

Avachinsky Volcano

The team recognized changes in the composition of rocks formed by the melting of Earth’s interior at subduction zones where major tectonic plates collide. The present-day subduction volcano shown here is Avachinsky, Kamchatka. Credit: Dr. Tom Gernon / University of Southampton

“When these rocks crystallize, they trap in vestiges of their past history,” says Dr. Tom Gernon, Associate Professor of Earth Science at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study. “So, we hypothesized that the evolution of plants should dramatically slow down the delivery of mud to the oceans and that this feature should be preserved in the rock record – it’s that simple.”

To test this idea, the team studied a database of over five thousand zircon crystals formed in magmas at subduction zones – essentially ‘time capsules’ that preserve vital information on the chemical conditions that prevailed on Earth when they crystallized.

Island of Montserrat

The present-day subduction volcano shown here is the Island of Montserrat, West Indies. Credit: Dr. Tom Gernon / University of Southampton

The team uncovered compelling evidence for a dramatic shift in the composition of rocks making up Earth’s continents, which coincides almost precisely with the onset of land plants.

Notably, the scientists also found that the chemical characteristics of zircon crystals generated at this time indicate a significant slowing down of sediment transfer to the oceans, just as they had hypothesized.

The researchers show that vegetation changed not only the surface of the Earth but also the dynamics of melting in Earth’s mantle.

“It is amazing to think that the greening of the continents was felt in the deep Earth,” concludes Dr. Spencer.

“Hopefully this previously unrecognized link between the Earth’s interior and surface environment stimulates further study.”

Reference: “Composition of continental crust altered by the emergence of land plants” by Christopher J. Spencer, Neil S. Davies, Thomas M. Gernon, Xi Wang, William J. McMahon, Taylor Rae I. Morrell, Thea Hincks, Peir K. Pufahl, Alexander Brasier, Marina Seraine and Gui-Mei Lu, 29 August 2022, Nature Geoscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00995-2

2 Comments on "A “Previously Unrecognized Link” – Land Plants Caused a Sudden Shift in Earth’s Composition"

  1. “The team uncovered compelling evidence for a dramatic shift in the composition of rocks making up Earth’s continents, which coincides almost precisely with the onset of land plants.”

    Unfortunately, neither this article, or the abstract that is linked, make it clear just how the zircons reflect the influence of plants. Zircons are zirconium orthosilicates with minor hafnium, uranium, and other trace elements. Zirconium and the other trace elements, including daughter products from the radiogenic decay of uranium, are not incorporated in vegetation. The question I’m left with is how the zircons older than Silurian differ from younger zircons. That is not made clear, despite that being the central point of the research.

  2. Another GREAT Read!
    At the rate the Team at Scitechdaily.com are uncovering so many new ‘revelations’ my appetite for all things deep in history is growing faster than my “comprehension”

    As you can see from my email address, I am Australian based and have a extremely large interest in Bass Strait (the shallow, narrow strip of water between the Australian Mainland and the Island State of Tasmania)

    Any potential Links that have been the subject of any ‘research’ will be treasured by me!

    Cheers 4Now, Stephen Dean

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.