Scientists Could Never Agree on How the Dinosaurs Died. So They Let a Non-Human Decide.

What Ended the Dinos? Experts Let Computers DecideGetty Images
  • For decades, paleontologists have debated what ultimately stamped non-avian dinosaurs’ extinction ticket—volcanism or asteroid impact.

  • To add a new voice to the debate, scientists from Dartmouth University tasked an interconnected web of processors to come to its own conclusion sans human bias

  • The resulting study concluded that volcanism located at India's Deccan Traps likely contributed the most to the dinosaur's demise though not all paleontologists agree

Some 66 million years ago, all dinosaurs (of the non-avian variety) met their end on planet Earth. For decades, scientists believed that unrestrained volcanism from India’s Deccan Traps was the engine behind the Earth’s fifth mass extinction—known as the K-Pg extinction, or the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. But in the late 1970s, petroleum prospectors discovered evidence of a massive impact crater in the Yucatán that coincided chronologically with K-Pg extinction.


Scientists had found its dino-killing culprit … or did they?

In the decades since the asteroid’s discovery, paleontologists have debated what really killed the dinosaurs. Did an ill-timed asteroid from outer space deliver the killing blow or did hundreds of thousands of years of volcanism—pumping some 10.4 trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—slowly choke Earth (nearly) to death like it had so many times before?

To settle the debate—or, at the very least, attempt to add an unbiased perspective—scientists from Dartmouth College used interconnected processors to crunch through geological and climate data. This data was derived from microorganisms that were extracted from cores obtained through deep-sea drilling. While also analyzing the fossil record in reverse to get a solution to this long-standing extinction debate without any human input, the computer ran through 300,000 possible simulations that spanned a million years before and after K-Pg extinction. Machine learning algorithms refined those conclusions until they were able to reproduce the outcome currently preserved in the existing fossil record. The results were published in the journal Science.

And the conclusion? Volcanoes did it.

“Our model worked through the data independently and without human bias to determine the amount of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide required to produce the climate and carbon cycle disruptions we see in the geologic record,” Brenhin Keller, Dartmouth assistant professor of Earth sciences and study co-author, said in a press statement. “These amounts turned out to be consistent with what we expect to see in emissions from the Deccan Traps.”

Even without the asteroid impact, this study claims the dinosaurs were likely doomed already. But the 100 million megaton blast delivered by the asteroid certainly helped things along. The study suggests that the asteroid’s initial impact likely tossed large amounts of sulfur throughout the atmosphere, which would have killed off some deep ocean plant and animal species and caused global temperatures to drop.

Not all scientists agree with the computers’ conclusions, however. One paleoclimatologist speaking with Science News said that it’s possible that, though the asteroid may have had a smaller overall impact, especially when it comes to releasing gasses, such a sudden change could have had devastating effects on the planet.

So, computers might’ve had their say on the matter, but the great K-Pg extinction debate continues.

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