EMBL Courses and Conferences during the Coronavirus pandemic
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University of Bristol, UK
The evidence for mass extinctions
Palaeontologists have studied mass extinctions for over fifty years, and substantial clarity has emerged on many points. Whereas causation was debated, two models have emerged – impact-driven crisis (one event, 66 Myr ago) and volcanism-driven crises (many events, including 252, 232, 201 Myr ago). In terms of patterns, geologists have refined their knowledge of age-dating, environmental change (changing climate, rapidity of change, post-crisis stabilization), and impacts on life (proportional losses, selectivity by ecology and palaeogeography, rate and nature of recovery). The volcanic model shows common features of warming (by up to 10oC), humidity, acid rain, stripping of forests and soils, ocean acidification and anoxia. These documented components of the consequences of huge volcanic eruptions can all be tested and confirmed, and they coincide with many of the current anthropogenic-caused changes to the atmosphere-ocean system. This means that investing effort in refining our knowledge of how global environments change, how the changes kill life, and how the Earth and life recover afterwards can inform our understanding of the current and near-future.
Michael Benton was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014 for his fundamental contributions to understanding the history of life, particularly biodiversity fluctuations through time. He is fascinated by the transformation of palaeobiology from a speculative subject to testable science and led one of these discoveries – how to determine the colour of dinosaurs, rated as one of the top scientific discoveries of the 2010s. He works with fossils and rocks to interpret ancient environments, especially around the end-Permian mass extinction, the greatest loss of life on Earth, some 250 million years ago. He also works with fossils to build evolutionary trees and use them to date major events and rates and patterns of evolution, so helping us understand why some groups of animals are more successful than others. He is currently working on the Triassic, the time during which life recovered from the end-Permian mass extinction and when modern ecosystems arose; this was a time of arms races between major groups, and dinosaurs won. Michael Benton has written some 400 scientific papers and more than 50 books on a broad range of palaeontological topics. He has supervised more than 70 PhD students, and was founder of the Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology, which has welcomed 400 students since its foundation, in 1996.