Professor's research creating a buzz

By Melissa Proulx
On November 8, 2013

New research published at the end of October by a University of New Hampshire professor has caused quite a buzz about just how much of an impact the event that killed off the dinosaurs made.

After noticing patterns in past research in their work, Sandra Rehan, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UNH and lead author of the study, along with her colleagues Michael Schwarz, an associate professor of biological science at Flinders University in Australia, and Remko Leys from the South Australian Museum, were able to conclude that four different groups of carpenter bees experienced a widespread extinction during the same event that wiped out the dinosaurs. The findings were published in Plos One, an open access, peer-reviewed, scientific journal that shares primary research from any of the various sciences.

"It was not the work of one person, but a collective effort," Rehan said. "We had amassed a lot of data over the years and [the results] just kinds of came out of the data."

The definite conclusion was made by studying the DNA sequences of the four groups, which consisted of over 230 species of carpenter bees from all over the world, except Antarctica, according to Rehan. This method, called molecular phylogenetics, along with limited amounts of fossil records, showed patterns of mass extinction in the populations studied. After introducing time into the equation, the team was able to confirm that the extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous and beginning of the Paleogene eras, the exact time that dinosaurs also experienced extinction.

"It was very surprising that four different groups of bees were experiencing the same amount of extinction at the same time," Rehan said. "But it also made sense based on what is known about what happened during that time period."

Even with a lot of the background and preliminary research already completed, the group did face a number of obstacles that they were able to overcome, many dealing with the fact that the evidence they were looking at and for was so exponentially dated.

"One of the major challenges was to distinguish between alternative evolutionary scenarios - this is not easy because we are talking about distinguishing between alternative events that happened more than 65 million years ago," Schwarz said. "We overcame that problem by working together and also by seeking advice from expert colleagues and consulting the most recent scientific literature."

Excited to have its results published in Plos One, the team hopes that its results will be help to inspire other researchers to continue to find out more about what happened during this time.

"Extinction of the dinosaurs is well-known, but extinction of other major animal groups is not so well-known," Schwarz. "Our results help fill in those gap, and because bees are such important pollinators, our results also have implications for what was happening to flowering plants at that time."

 

"No one had really looked or found that bees had a similar fate [as the dinosaurs]," Rehan said. "It's an open-ended question to how wide this extinction might have been and this will definitely be something I will continue working on in the future."


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