Eureka prize takes on the world

Jlong West MacDonnells
Professor John Long and Flinders palaeontology students on a recent fossil expedition in the West MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia.

Pioneering research studying major mass extinction events in the Earth’s history has taken out one of the nation’s top science prizes.

The Trace Elements in Past Oceans (TEPO) project won the 2016 UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research at this year’s ‘Oscars’ of Australian science awards.

The multidisciplinary research project, led by Distinguished Professor Ross Large and his ARC Centre of Excellence in Ore Deposits team at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), includes collaborating partners Flinders University palaeontologist Professor John Long and experts from the Russian Academy of Science and University of California.

They are using analytical chemistry, geology, palaeontology, evolutionary biology and toxicology to research trace element patterns in sediments up to 700 million years old from hundreds of core samples collected around the world.

The project is expanding knowledge about the connections between plate tectonics, past ocean chemistry and the evolution and extinction of life on Earth.

TEPO researchers have mapped changes to the ocean’s chemistry by analysing pyrite in oceanic bed drill cores, last year finding connections between tectonic activity in the Earth’s crusts and correspondingly low levels in vital trace elements, notably selenium, which subsequently caused three of five mass extinctions.

The revelation challenged and expanded existing understanding of the evolution of life on Earth.

Measuring other elements, such as acidity levels in the ocean, could provide valuable guidance about the triggers for possible mass extinctions in the future.

Flinders Strategic Professor in Paleaontology John Long, an expert in Devonian fish fossils, previously won an Australian Museum Eureka Award in 2001.

He says this new field of research, using UTAS’s large collection of cores from deep below the ocean floor, is examining other trace elements which can be measured as barometres of survival or expansion of life during various geological eras.

Not only did the three mass extinction events correlate with a fall in selenium, but added a new dimension to theories about mass extinctions such as cooling events such as ice ages, or a lack of oxygen in the oceans.

“All mass extinctions have a bit of controversy around them, but these three in particular were not linked to a major impact event like the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago,” Professor Long told the ABC.

“But none of these events or causes in themselves are total explanations for the widespread extinctions both in the oceans and on land in some instances.

“So our explanation of the trace element depauperation (poor development) in the oceans is a very good example of something that covers all the bases and actually gives a better explanation for some of these events.”

“It was a eureka moment (and) sent shivers down my spine because I thought this is so radical many of my colleagues aren’t going to believe it.”

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