Steep-sided cliffs rising out of the western edge of the Hurry Inlet in Jameson Land, East Greenland contain some of the richest fossil plant deposits of Triassic-Jurassic age in the world. These rocks and fossils are important, as they potentially hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of tumultuous events that took place around 200 million years ago, at the transition from the Triassic to Jurassic periods. This was a time in Earth history when voluminous basaltic lavas flooded large areas of the Earth’s surface, greenhouse gasses rose to unprecedented levels, temperatures soared and, according to some scientists, an extra-terrestrial impact may have occurred. From a biological perspective, it was a time of great turnover and extinction - the Triassic-Jurassic boundary itself marks the third-greatest mass extinction event in Earth history. Over 50% of marine animals are believed to have gone extinct whilst, on land, 95% of plant species were replaced by newly evolving forms. Surprisingly, however, this mass extinction event is understudied and many lingering questions remain regarding the causes and consequences of the resulting great loss of biodiversity.
In 2002, a project was launched by Field Museum Associate Curator Jennifer McElwain, in collaboration with scientists from around the world, to collect fossil plants from the great cliffs of Jameson Land, East Greenland, with an aim to unravel the events leading to one of the greatest losses of biodiversity the Earth has ever witnessed. An ancient ecological or ‘paleoecological’ study was planned, which aimed to document, in detail, the changing patterns of relative diversity, and abundances, of different fossil plant species, in response to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases and global warming across the boundary. If the past is considered a key to the future, perhaps results from our expedition to East Greenland will hold clues to the fate of Earth’s current biodiversity in response to ongoing and future climate change.