An imagined post-extinction scene, when the ocean was filled with tiny fish. (Bob Nicholls)

A new study suggests that being a little shrimpy might come in handy when the going gets tough. A mass extinction called the Hangenberg event, which took place some 359 million years ago, led to a reduction in vertebrate size for around 40 million years afterward. The research, published Thursday in Science, adds support to the so-called Lilliput Effect, which suggests that mass extinctions cause marked shrinkage in the animal population.

[As large animals disappear, the loss of their poop hurts the planet]

According to new research led by the University of Pennsylvania's Lauren Sallan, a mass extinction 359 million years ago known as the Hangenberg event triggered a drastic and lasting transformation of Earth's vertebrate community. (University of Pennsylvania)

To study how fish fared after this devastating extinction, the University of Pennsylvania's Lauren Sallen (along with Andrew K. Galimberti, now a graduate student at the University of Maine) studied 1,120 fish fossils dating back 419 to 323 million years ago. She found that the ancient fish had been increasing in size over time — which is to be expected — but that body size plummeted after 97 percent of species were wiped out.

[This chart of sea-dwelling giants will make you feel tiny]

“Some large species hung on, but most eventually died out,” Sallan said in a statement. Before the extinction, some fish had grown to be as big as school buses. But in the unstable ecosystem of a post-mass-extinction ocean, only small fish — ones that could reproduce quickly and survive on less food — could thrive.

That means an ocean full of enormous sea monsters gave way to an ocean full of sardine-like critters. “[T]he end result is an ocean in which most sharks are less than a meter and most fishes and tetrapods are less than 10 centimeters, which is extremely tiny. Yet these are the ancestors of everything that dominates from then on, including humans," Sallan said.

[Ancient volcanic rocks suggest that Earth’s water arrived surprisingly early]

There's a very good reason to look into these devastating extinctions of the distant past: Many scientists believe that Earth is on the verge of a sixth mass extinction — one caused by human activity.

It's not like this is the first indication that a modern mass extinction would be, um, not great for the planet. But it's another reminder that the global ecosystem can't bounce back from such massive blows quickly enough for humans to be unaffected. At the very least, Sallan says in the video above, "sushi plates might get much smaller."

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