The meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs is thought to have decimated the evergreen flowering plants to a much greater extent than faster-growing deciduous ones.
Scientists believe the properties of deciduous plants made them better able to respond rapidly to chaotic post-apocalyptic climate conditions.
A 10km diameter chunk of rock hit the Yukatan peninsula 66 million years ago with the force of 100 teratons of TNT explosive, and left a crater more than 150km across.
In the resulting megatsunami, fires, global earthquakes and volcanism are widely accepted to have wiped out the dinosaurs and made way for the rise of the mammals.
The new study led by researchers from the University of Arizona looked at thousands of fossilized leaves of angiosperms, flowering plants excluding conifers.
The team was able to reconstruct the ecology of a diverse plant community thriving during a 2.2 million year period spanning the cataclysmic impact event, believed to have wiped out more than half of plant species living at the time.
The fossilized leaf samples span the last 1,400,000 years of the Cretaceous and the first 800,000 of the Paleogene.
The researchers found evidence that after the impact, fast-growing, deciduous angiosperms had replaced their slow-growing, evergreen peers to a large extent.
Living examples of evergreen angiosperms, such as holly and ivy, tend to prefer shade, don’t grow very fast and sport dark-coloured leaves.
“When you look at forests around the world today, you don’t see many forests dominated by evergreen flowering plants,” says the study’s lead author, Benjamin Blonder.
“Instead, they are dominated by deciduous species, plants that lose their leaves at some point during the year.”
The results of the study are published in the journal PLOS Biology.
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