About 252 million years ago Earth experienced what's sometimes called the Great Dying — the largest mass extinction our planet has ever known.
Blamed on massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia, the event wiped out about 70 percent of all land species and 96 percent of ocean life.
Now some scientists are questioning previously held notions about how long it took for ocean life to rebound from the cataclysmic die-off. The new information comes from a recently published scientific paper based on analysis of fossils found years ago in southeastern Idaho by a teen rockhound.
Now 37 years old, that Blackfoot, Idaho, teenager — L.J. Krumenacker — for years kept seeking help in identifying one of the curious fossils he had unearthed in the late 1990s from a place called Paris Canyon. No one knew what the creature was.
“They look like little worms — long, tubular, flattened, wrinkled things,” he said.
His curiosity followed him to Montana State University where he’s a now doctoral student in the MSU Department of Earth Sciences.
“Every time I’d meet a new paleontologist, I’d ask them what they thought they were.”
Then a few years ago he sent a photo to his Facebook friend, Kevin Bylund, an independent paleontologist. Bylund showed the photos to French paleontologist Arnaud Brayard of Université de Bourgogne, who identified the fossil as a sponge.
What makes the sponge so unusual is the time period from which it came — about 1 million years after the Great Dying. Previously scientists had believed that it took much longer — about 5 million years — for marine life to rebound from the extinction event that left the oceans acidic and inhospitable to aquatic life.
Three years ago Krumenacker led Brayard and others to examine the Idaho canyon where he had also found shark teeth and shrimp fossils. Those excavations and research led to the recently published paper, "Unexpected Early Triassic marine ecosystem and the rise of the Modern evolutionary fauna."
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"... The unexpected composition of this exceptional assemblage points toward an early and rapid post-Permian diversification for these clades,” the paper noted.
Overall it showed a marine ecosystem that was nutritionally multileveled, diverse in the organisms' evolutionary history, and functionally complex, "from primary producers up to top predators and potential scavengers," the paper noted.
Among the 30 different lifeforms that have thus far been identified from the Paris Canyon site are leptomitid sponges, mollusks, starfish, ammonoids, shrimp, lobsters, shark teeth and squidlike mollusks with numerous hooks on their tentacles. This type of squidlike mollusk was previously thought not to have originated until 50 million years later.
“It kind of upends things,” Krumenacker said.
"The find is significant in that the sponges, shrimp, echinoids, gladius bearing coleoids, and other fossils are very seldom preserved except at sites with exceptional preservation such as that in Paris Canyon," Bylund said. "This opens a window, so to say, on the diversity of life at that specific time and place that otherwise would have gone unseen."
“One question I still have is: Does this represent what was happening globally, or did this just happen in one little area?”
The fact that Krumenacker, an untrained teen, led to such a remarkable finding gives him hope that other amateurs can make “great contributions to science.”
Krumenacker said he returns to the site every year to see what other discoveries he can make.
“When I found the shark teeth, shrimp and sponges, I knew we had something significant,” he said. “We have put together a large group of researchers, and I think there are a lot of discoveries still to be made in these rocks in Idaho.”
Last year, Krumenacker was among a team of paleontologists who identified several new types of dinosaurs through fossils found in eastern Idaho, including an ancestor of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.