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A new study of nearly 22,000 fossils finds that ancient plankton communities began changing in important ways as much as 400,000 years before massive die-offs ensued during the first of Earth’s five great extinctions.

The research, published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on large zooplankton called graptolites. It suggests that the effects of environmental degradation can be subtle until they reach a tipping point, at which dramatic declines in population begin.

“In looking at these organisms, what we saw was a disruption of community structures — the way in which the plankton were organized in the water column. Communities came to be less complex and dominated by fewer species well before the massive extinction itself,” says H. David Sheets, PhD, professor of physics at Canisius and co-author of the study.

This turmoil, occurring in a time of ancient climate change, could hold lessons for the modern world.

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Submitted by: College Communications