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Princeton paleontologist produces evidence for new theory on dinosaur extinction

As a paleontologist, Gerta Keller has studied many aspects of the history of life on Earth. But the question capturing her attention lately is one so basic it has passed the lips of generations of 6-year-olds: What killed the dinosaurs?

The answers she has been uncovering for the last decade have stirred an adult-sized debate that puts Keller at odds with many scientists who study the question. Keller, a professor in Princeton's Department of Geosciences, is among a minority of scientists who believe that the story of the dinosaurs' demise is much more complicated than the familiar and dominant theory that a single asteroid hit Earth 65 million years ago and caused the mass extinction known as the Cretacious-Tertiary, or K/T, boundary.

Keller and a growing number of colleagues around the world are turning up evidence that, rather than a single event, an intensive period of volcanic eruptions as well as a series of asteroid impacts are likely to have stressed the world ecosystem to the breaking point. Although an asteroid or comet probably struck Earth at the time of the dinosaur extinction, it most likely was, as Keller says, "the straw that broke the camel's back" and not the sole cause.

Perhaps more controversially, Keller and colleagues contend that the "straw" -- that final impact -- is probably not what most scientists believe it is. For more than a decade, the prevailing theory has centered on a massive impact crater in Mexico. In 1990, scientists proposed that the Chicxulub crater, as it became known, was the remnant of the fateful dinosaur-killing event and that theory has since become dogma.

Keller has accumulated evidence, including results released this year, suggesting that the Chicxulub crater probably did not coincide with the K/T boundary. Instead, the impact that caused the Chicxulub crater was likely smaller than originally believed and probably occurred 300,000 years before the mass extinction. The final dinosaur-k
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Contact: Steven Schultz
sschultz@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
25-Sep-2003


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