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The Major Mass Extinctions Of The Phanerozoic

Image from http://www.carleton.ca/~tpatters/teaching/intro/extinction/extinction1.html.

ACTIVITY 1: Read the Fact Sheets and answer the following:
1. List 4 theories that try to account for the extinction of the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous crisis.
2. When was this in years before present (YBP)? What percentage of life became extinct?
3. Explain why one theory is favoured.
4. Prepare a chart of all the crises or extinctions, in order – from most recent to earliest – by name, years before present, and percentage loss.
5. Compare this chart with the graph of ice ages in Section 4.2. Check the time line of both graphs carefully. Is there a relationship between these graphs? State your findings and be prepared to defend them.

The Major Mass Extinctions Of The Phanerozoic: Fact Sheets

The Great Cretaceous Mass Extinction

The sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs has long been known to paleontologists. Numerous attempts have been made to explain this, with two major theories supporeted the greatest collection of evidence. Sixty-five million years ago nearly 75-80% of all species of life on Earth were wiped out in an incredibly short period of time. In addition to dinosaurs, pterosaurs, belemnoids, many species of plants (such as the plant that produced Aquilapollenites type pollen), ammonites, marine reptiles and bivalves also disappeared.

Among the various hypotheses put forward were

  • allergies by dinosaurs to pollen produced by flowering plants
  • increased radiation levels that led to male dinosaur sterility
  • diseases brought by migrating animals
  • a gradual climate deterioration until the dinosaurs were unable to exist

The first hypothesis ignores the fact that flowering plants and dinosaurs had coexisted for over 70 million years before the mass extinction.

Increased radiation levels would not cause the extinction of many of the plant species, nor do we know if male dinosaurs carried their gonads outside their bodies.

The migration hypothesis does have some merit. Introduction of a new animal group to an area will cause ecosystems to change as well as possibly bring disease. Sheep in Iceland, for example, were severely affected by a virus brought with new sheep from Europe. The Icelandic sheep had no resistance to this virus, although the European newcomers did.

The suggestion that dinosaurs became extinct because they were unable to cope with a cooling had merit if all dinosaurs were little more than large ectothermic lizards. The modern view of dinosaurs suggests they were quite well adapted to their environments. Although the diversity of dinosaurs shows a drop approaching the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs that did exist, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, were well suited to their environments.

The Jurassic Extinctions
The Jurassic saw two minor mass extinctions. The first occurred about one-third of the way through the period, during the early Jurassic. This first Jurassic extinction affected approximately 80% of the bivalves as well as other shallow water organisms. At the close of the Jurassic, about 140 million years ago, a second minor mass extinction happened. This affected mostly the ammonoids, marine reptiles, bivalves, and certain dinosaur groups such as the stegosaurs and the giant sauropods. Only one stegosaur escaped this extinction, Dravidosaurus, a small stegosaurid restricted to the Cretaceous of India, which was an island at that time. The causes of both of these extinctions are not clear.

The Triassic Extinction
At the end of the Triassic a minor mass extinction occurred. The cause of this is still in dispute, although the consensus opinion favors global cooling associated with an asteroid impact or comet showers. The victims of this event included the labyrinthodont amphibians, conodonts, and all marine reptiles except ichthyosaurs.T hecodonts, brachiopods, gastropods, and molluscs also suffered a loss of diversity as did the synapsids. As with larger mass extinctions, the Triassic die off opened ecological spaces into which the dinosaurs and other creatures moved during the Jurassic.


The Great Permian Extinction
The Permian is geologically marked by the final assembly of Pangaea, glaciation in the souther extreme of Gondwana, and the greatest mass extinction in Earth history that occurred at the close of the Permian. The Permian world was marked by a nearly pole-to-pole supercontinent, Pangaea, that was surrounded by Panthalassa, the world sea. A small ocean, Tethys (today akin to the Mediterranean Sea) was also present.

The end of the Permian, also the end of the Paleozoic era, was marked by the greatest extinction of the Phanerozoic eon. Despite its magnitude, the terminal Permian extinction has not received the amount of publicity or research that the more famous, but lesser, terminal Cretaceous extinction has. During the Permian extinction event, whose causes remain controversial, over 95% of marine species went extinct, while 70% of terresdtrial taxonomic familes suffered the same fate. The fusulinid foraminiferans went completely extinct, as did the trilobites. Brachiopod genera declined from 60 to 10. The majority of extinctions seem to have occurred at low paleolatitudes, possibly suggesting some event involving the ocean.

Plants seem to have missed the great extinction. What floral changes occurred during the Permian occurred earlier in the period, when the gradual drying out of the continent led to the evolution and spread of better adapted dry forms such as gymnosperms and seed ferns to replace the swamp trees of the Carboniferous such as treelike lycopods and sphenopsids. One major plant group disappeared, the swamp gymnosperm Cordaites.

Victims of the Permian extinction:

  • fusulinid foraminifera trilobites rugose and tabulate corals
  • blastoids acanthodians placoderms
  • pelycosaurs

The cause (or causes) of the Permian extinction remain in dispute.

1. The Siberian Traps are a massive lava flow in eastern Asia that may have contributed to (or even caused) the Permian event by triggering a massive, sudden glaciation as well as other environmental consequences of volcanic eruptions. The period of greatest eruption in the traps coincides with the mass extinction. Ages of the lava flows suggest the traps formed over a one million year interval. The traps are near the city of Tura and also occur in Yakutsk, Noril’sk and Irkutsk, covering an area of slightly less than 2 million square kilometers (an area larger than Europe). The original volume of the traps is estimated at between 1 million and 4 million cubic km.

2. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction that marks the close of the Mesozoic era has been hypothesized as a result of a large meteor or comet strike. Evidence of a similar (and larger) impact at the close of the Permian is not strongly supported, although some indirect evidence suggests an impact did occur during the Permian, although possibly not at the time of the extinction crisis.

3. Climate change, possibly caused by glaciation and/or volcanic activity, has been associated with many mass extinctions. It seems likely that climate change is a consequence of the cause of extinction rather than the root cause itself.

4. Formation of Pangaea has been invoked as a cause for the extinction. However, the formation of Pangaea had occurred well before the mass extinction. The mountain building and associated tectonism would also have been extremely long term in duration, possibly 10 million years according to some studies of the snowball garnets from Vermont. Pangaea’s presence may have led to extreme environments with hotter interior areas of the continent and colder polar areas, possibly producing glaciation.

5. There is evidence of a sudden drop in sea level at the end of the Permian. This could be attributed to the sudden cooling of the climate that produced glaciers at the southern polar areas in Gondwana. Glacial tillites and other geological evidence of late Permian age occur in Australia, Siberia and in the North Sea are interpreted as proof of the existence of large continental glaciers at the close of the Permian.

6. Poisoning of the ocean has been suggested due to an apparent drop in carbon isotope data obtained from marine sediments formed at the time of the extinction. The cause of this apparent dropoff in the photosynthetic rate in the seas has not yet been determined.

Whatever cause (or combination of causes), the terminal Permain extinction was a massive and severe crisis for life. Many groups of organisms went extinct at that time. Surviving groups diversified during the Triassic period and gradually a more modern world developed.

The Carboniferous Extinction
Glaciation in Gondwana during the late Carboniferous time contributed to decline in marine environments and fluctuating sealevels that alternately formed and destroyed coastal coal swamp environments. There appears to have been no mass extinction associated with this glaciation, unlike the Devonian mass extinction.

The Devonian Extinction
Near the end of the Devonian another mass extinction occurred. This one was more severe on marine creatures than on the newly established terrestrial forms. The corals were quite seriously decimated, and the return of extensive reef building did not happen until the Triassic with the evolution of a new group of reef-building corals, the scleractinians. Brachiopods, trilobites and primitive fish groups either were diminished or completely snuffed out by this extinction event.

Global cooling tied to Gondwanan glaciation has been proposed as the cause of the Devonian extinction, as it was also suspected of causing the terminal Ordovician extinction. Rocks in parts of Gondwana suggest a glacial event. The forms of marine life most affected by the extinction were the warm water to tropical ones. Another hypothesis for this extinction is that an asteroid impact caused a global cooling. There are several impact sites known to be of the right potential age to have been involved in this extinction. Neither hypothesis, glaciation or impact, is unequivocally supported by the available data.

Global cooling tied to Gondwana glaciation has been proposed as the cause of the Devonian extinction, as it was also suspected of causing the terminal Ordovician extinction. Rocks in parts of Gondwana suggest a glacial event. The forms of marine life most affected by the extinction were the warm water to tropical ones. Another hypothesis for this extinction is that an asteroid impact caused a global cooling. There are several impact sites known to be of the right potential age to have been involved in this extinction. Neither hypothesis, glaciation or impact, is unequivocally supported by the available data.

The Paleozoic Era literally translates as the “time of ancient life” and spans the time period between 544 and 245 million years ago. The Paleozoic is the first of three eras within the Phanerozoic Eon (the time of visible life). While life originated during the Archean and increased in complexity during the earlier Proterozoic, the Paleozoic Era is marked by the spread of animals with hard preservable parts such as shells and exoskeletons. This has led to what is popularly known as the Cambrian Explosion, the sudden appearance of a stupendous array of animal life, much of which is not closely related to modern forms. Despite extinctions at various times, the Paleozoic is notable for the increasing modernization of life. By the end of the Paleozoic, almost all major groups of life had developed. The Paleozoic ended in the greatest mass extinction event in world history. During this massive die-off nearly 96% of all marine species went extinct.

During the Paleozoic we see several major advances in life. The aformentioned Cambrian Explosion is the first. The evolution of plants from some group of green alge during the Ordovician is another, since these plants moved from water onto land, paving the way for vertebrate animals to follow. The first vertebrates, amphibians, were little more than legged fish, although their remote descendants would come to rule the land as reptiles, the first truly terrestrial vertebrates.

The Silurian World
Silurian climates were characterized by a warming and return to moderate. Silurian is not marked by a major mass extinction event.

The Ordovician Mass Extinction
The end of the Ordovicianperiod saw another mass extinction, accounting for the second most severe loss of marine species during the Phanerozoic. This mass extinction saw the loss of one third of all brachiopod and bryozoans, and the loss of groups of conodonts, trilobites, and graptolites. The falling sea-levels caused by the growth of the continental glaciers caused much of the reef-building fauna to become either locally or globally extinct. Over one hundred families of marine invertebrates disappeared. However, this loss paved the way for an adaptive radiation during the next period, the Silurian.

The Cambrian Extinctions
The Cambrian period is marked by as many as four mass extinctions. The first of these mass extinctions resulted in the disappearance of the archaeocyathids and a major group of trilobites. The later extinctions limited the diversity of conodonts, brachiopods, and other triolobite groups. The Cambrian is bracketed by large scale glaciation at the close of the Proterozoic and by a similar occurrence early in the Ordovician. Development of continental glaciers would have several consequences: cooling of the planet and a drop in sea level. Both of these might have happened quickly enough to result in a mass extinction.