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Scientists thrilled at Chicxulub crater study findings

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Scientists drill the Chicxulub crater site in April and May 2016. Photo: IODP
Scientists drill the Chicxulub crater site in April and May 2016. Photo: IODP

Months after drilling into the Chicxulub “dinosaur crater” site off Progreso, scientists have obtained remarkable new insights, with more to come.

Scientists report they can see evidence of how life returned to the scene soon after the calamity 66 million years ago. That’s when an asteroid impact possibly wiped out dinosaurs around the world.

But some organisms survived, and their descendants are likely thriving today in among the crater’s remains, to the fascination of the scientific community.

Hundreds of meters of core drilled from beneath the Gulf of Mexico are under the microscope at the University of Bremen, Germany, where they are being cataloged, analyzed and archived.

Core material retrieved from the Chicxulub crater site is under study. Photo: IODP
Core material retrieved from the Chicxulub crater site is under study. Photo: IODP

One of the team’s top scientists, Prof. Sean Gulick, of the University of Texas, shared some early observations.

“We’ve been able to examine that first 10,000 years after the impact, which is dominated by what we call ‘disaster species’ – dominated by the organisms that love stressed environments. And then we can see evolution coming back in [during] the next few hundred thousands years after that,” he told BBC News.

The Chicxulub drill site was not far off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Chicxulub drill site was not far off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Graphic: NASA

The “disaster species” that left their fossil traces in the rocks are tiny plankton-type organisms, such as particular forms of dinoflagellates.

The research team is excited to find evidence in the cores of what would be descendants of organisms that invaded pore spaces and cracks through which hot fluids flowed. Similar life-sustaining hydrothermal systems are seen at volcanic vents at mid-ocean ridges.

“We’ve got some cell counts and some DNA, but it’s all very early days; we’re very concerned about contamination,” explained Prof. Jo Morgan. “But the signs are that, yes, this crater was occupied soon after the impact.”

The drilling was conducted just off the Yucatán coast last spring.

“So, we think that this investigation will give us answers to some fundamental questions that people have been asking for decades, like the energy of the impact, maybe some information about the kill mechanisms that caused the mass extinction, and also fundamentally about how impact processes work [and] how impacts affect all planets in the rocky part of the Solar System,” Gulick told the BBC.

Nasa image shows Yucatán's Gulf coast from space.
Nasa image shows Yucatán’s Gulf coast from space.

Only about a half of the recovered crater rocks are being used for the current study. The rest are being archived until lab equipment is more advanced.

The expedition to drill into Chicxulub Crater was conducted by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). The expedition was also supported by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP).

Formal results will be published in a slew of scholarly papers that should start appearing very soon, the BBC estimates.

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