Reconstruction of the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation extinct ecosystem—a synthesis
A synthesis of recent and previous studies of the Morrison Formation and related beds, in the context of a conceptual climatic/hydrologic framework, permits reconstruction of the Late Jurassic dinosaurian ecosystem throughout the Western Interior of the United States and Canada. Climate models and geologic evidence indicate that a dry climate persisted in the Western Interior during the Late Jurassic. Early and Middle Kimmeridgian eolian deposits and Late Kimmeridgian alkaline, saline wetland/lacustrine deposits demonstrate that dryness persisted throughout the Kimmeridgian. Tithonian-age coal reflects lower evaporation rates associated with a slight cooling trend, but not a significant climate change. With a subtropical high over the Paleo-Pacific Ocean and atmospheric circulation generally toward the east, moisture carried by prevailing winds "rained out" progressively eastward, leaving the continental interior—and the Morrison depositional basin—dry. Within the basin, high evaporation rates associated with the southerly paleolatitude and greenhouse effects added to the dryness. Consequently, the two main sources of water—groundwater and surface water—originated outside the basin, through recharge of regional aquifers and streams that originated in the western uplands. Precipitation that fell west of the basin recharged aquifers that underlay the basin and discharged in wetlands and lakes in the distal, low-lying part of the basin. Precipitation west of the basin also fed intermittent and scarce perennial streams that flowed eastward. The streams were probably "losing" streams in their upstream reaches, and contributed to a locally raised water table. Elsewhere in the basin, where the floodplain intersected the water table, small lakes dotted the landscape. Seasonal storms, perhaps in part from the Paleo-Gulf of Mexico, brought some precipitation directly to the basin, although it was also subjected to "rain out" en route. Thus, meteoric input to the basin was appreciably less than groundwater and surface water contributions. The terrestrial Morrison ecosystem, which can be likened to a savannah, expanded with the northward retreat of the Late Jurassic Western Interior Seaway. The ecosystem was a complex mosaic, the components of which shifted through time. Riparian environments probably were the most diverse parts of the ecosystem, where a multi-storeyed canopy supported a diverse fauna, from insects to dinosaurs. Equable conditions also existed in wetlands, lakes, and elsewhere on the floodplain when seasonal rainfall brought an herbaceous groundcover to life. Eolian environments and alkaline, saline wetlands were inhospitable to life. Large herbivorous dinosaurs were adapted to this semi-arid landscape. Their size was an adaptive asset based on considerations of food requirements associated with a low metabolism and was also an advantage for migration during drought. Some of the large sauropods were adapted to browsing the higher vegetation associated with riparian environments; others to grazing the herbaceous groundcover on the floodplain and charophytes in the wetlands. The extensive distal wetlands may, in fact, have been refugia for some of these herbivores during the dry season and droughts. Extended periods of drought account for some of the dinosaur death assemblages; yet, the ecosystem could also sustain the most unusual life forms that ever roamed the Earth.
- Pub Date:
- May 2004
- Earth Science