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In a landmark paper published in 1982, Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup identified five mass extinctions. They were originally identified as outliers to a general trend of decreasing extinction rates during the Phanerozoic, but as more stringent statistical tests have been applied to the accumulating data, the "Big Five" cannot be so clearly defined, but rather appear to represent the largest (or some of the largest) of a relatively smooth continuum of extinction events.
- Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (End Cretaceous, K-T extinction, or K-Pg extinction): 66 Ma at the Cretaceous.Maastrichtian-Paleogene.Danian transition interval. The K–T event is now officially called the Cretaceous–Paleogene (or K–Pg) extinction event in place of Cretaceous-Tertiary. About 17% of all families, 50% of all genera and 75% of all species became extinct. In the seas it reduced the percentage of sessile animals to about 33%. The majority of non-avian dinosaurs became extinct during that time. The boundary event was severe with a significant amount of variability in the rate of extinction between and among different clades. Mammals and birds emerged as dominant land vertebrates in the age of new life.
- Triassic–Jurassic extinction event (End Triassic): 200 Ma at the Triassic-Jurassic transition. About 23% of all families, 48% of all genera (20% of marine families and 55% of marine genera) and 70% to 75% of all species went extinct. Most non-dinosaurian archosaurs, most therapsids, and most of the large amphibians were eliminated, leaving dinosaurs with little terrestrial competition. Non-dinosaurian archosaurs continued to dominate aquatic environments, while non-archosaurian diapsids continued to dominate marine environments. The Temnospondyl lineage of large amphibians also survived until the Cretaceous in Australia (e.g., Koolasuchus).
- Permian–Triassic extinction event (End Permian): 251 Ma at the Permian-Triassic transition. Earth's largest extinction killed 57% of all families, 83% of all genera and 90% to 96% of all species. (53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, about 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species, including insects. The evidence of plants is less clear, but new taxa became dominant after the extinction. The "Great Dying" had enormous evolutionary significance: on land, it ended the primacy of mammal-like reptiles. The recovery of vertebrates took 30 million years, but the vacant niches created the opportunity for archosaurs to become ascendant. In the seas, the percentage of animals that were sessile dropped from 67% to 50%. The whole late Permian was a difficult time for at least marine life, even before the "Great Dying".
- Late Devonian extinction: 375–360 Ma near the Devonian-Carboniferous transition. At the end of the Frasnian Age in the later part(s) of the Devonian Period, a prolonged series of extinctions eliminated about 19% of all families, 50% of all genera and 70% of all species. This extinction event lasted perhaps as long as 20 Ma, and there is evidence for a series of extinction pulses within this period.
- Ordovician–Silurian extinction event (End Ordovician or O-S): 450–440 Ma at the Ordovician-Silurian transition. Two events occurred that killed off 27% of all families, 57% of all genera and 60% to 70% of all species. Together they are ranked by many scientists as the second largest of the five major extinctions in Earth's history in terms of percentage of genera that went extinct.
Despite the popularization of these five events, there is no fine line separating them from other extinction events; indeed, using different methods of calculating an extinction's impact can lead to other events featuring in the top five.
Lesser extinction events include:
Tamu Massif is an extinct submarine shield volcano located in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. The possibility of its nature as a single volcano was announced on 5 September 2013, which, if corroborated, would make Tamu Massif the largest known volcano on Earth. It is located in the Shatsky Rise about 1,600 km (990 mi) east of Japan. Its summit lies about 1,980 m (6,500 ft) below the surface of the ocean, and its base extends to a depth of about 6.4 km (4.0 mi). The volcano is about 4,460 metres (14,620 ft) tall.
William Sager, a marine geophysicist from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston, began studying the volcano in about 1993 at the Texas A&M College of Geosciences. According to Sager and his team, Tamu Massif is "the biggest single shield volcano ever discovered on Earth". While other igneous features on the planet are larger, such as the Ontong Java Plateau, it has not yet been determined if they are indeed just one volcano or rather complexes of several volcanoes.
Karoo and Ferrar denote a major geologic province consisting of flood basalt, which mostly covers South Africa and Antarctica, although portions extend further into southern Africa and into South America, India, Australia and New Zealand. It formed just prior to the breakup of Gondwana in the Lower Jurassic epoch, about 183 million years ago; this timing corresponds to the early Toarcian anoxic event and the Pliensbachian-Toarcian extinction. The total original volume of the flow, which extends over a distance in excess of 6000 km (4000 km in Antarctica alone), was in excess of 2.5 x 106 km³.
A flood basalt or trap basalt is the result of a giant volcanic eruption or series of eruptions that coats large stretches of land or the ocean floor with basalt lava. Flood basalts have occurred on continental scales (large igneous provinces) in prehistory, creating great plateaus and mountain ranges. Flood basalts have erupted at random intervals throughout geological history and are clear evidence that the Earth undergoes periods of enhanced activity rather than being in a uniform steady state.
One proposed explanation for flood basalts is that they are caused by the combination of continental rifting and its associated decompression melting, in conjunction with a mantle plume also undergoing decompression melting, producing vast quantities of a tholeiitic basaltic magma. These have a very low viscosity, which is why they 'flood' rather than form taller volcanoes. Another explanation is that they result from the release, over a short time period, of melt that has accumulated in the mantle over a long time period.
The Deccan Traps of central India, the Siberian Traps, and the Columbia River Plateau of western North America are three regions covered by prehistoric flood basalts. The two largest flood basalt events in historic time have been at Eldgjá and Lakagigar, both in Iceland. The largest and best-preserved continental flood basalt terrain on Earth is part of the Mackenzie Large Igneous Province in Canada. The maria on the Moon are additional, even more extensive, flood basalts. Flood basalts on the ocean floor produce oceanic plateaus.
The surface covered by one eruption can vary from around 200,000 km² (Karoo) to 1,500,000 km² (Siberian Traps). The thickness can vary from 2000 metres (Deccan Traps) to 12,000 m (Lake Superior). These are smaller than the original volumes due to erosion.
Oceanic anoxic events or anoxic events occur when the Earth's oceans become completely depleted of oxygen (O2) below the surface levels. The similar term euxinia refers to anoxic conditions in the presence of H
2S hydrogen sulfide. Although anoxic events have not happened for millions of years, the geological record shows that they happened many times in the past. Anoxic events may have caused mass extinctions. These mass extinctions include some that geobiologists use as time markers in biostratigraphic dating. It is believed oceanic anoxic events are strongly linked to lapses in key oceanic current circulations, to climate warming and greenhouse gases.
Most widely supported explanations
Macleod (2001) summarized the relationship between mass extinctions and events which are most often cited as causes of mass extinctions, using data from Courtillot et al. (1996), Hallam (1992) and Grieve et al. (1996):
- Flood basalt events: 11 occurrences, all associated with significant extinctions But Wignall (2001) concluded that only five of the major extinctions coincided with flood basalt eruptions and that the main phase of extinctions started before the eruptions.
- Sea-level falls: 12, of which seven were associated with significant extinctions.
- Asteroid impacts; One large impact associated with a mass extinction; there have been many smaller impacts but they are not associated with significant extinctions.[clarification needed]
The most commonly suggested causes of mass extinctions are listed below.
Flood basalt events
The formation of large igneous provinces by flood basalt events could have:
- produced dust and particulate aerosols which inhibited photosynthesis and thus caused food chains to collapse both on land and at sea
- emitted sulfur oxides which were precipitated as acid rain and poisoned many organisms, contributing further to the collapse of food chains
- emitted carbon dioxide and thus possibly causing sustained global warming once the dust and particulate aerosols dissipated.
Flood basalt events occur as pulses of activity punctuated by dormant periods. As a result they are likely to cause the climate to oscillate between cooling and warming, but with an overall trend towards warming as the carbon dioxide they emit can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
Sustained and significant global cooling
Sustained global cooling could kill many polar and temperate species and force others to migrate towards the equator; reduce the area available for tropical species; often make the Earth's climate more arid on average, mainly by locking up more of the planet's water in ice and snow. The glaciation cycles of the current ice age are believed to have had only a very mild impact on biodiversity, so the mere existence of a significant cooling is not sufficient on its own to explain a mass extinction.
It has been suggested that global cooling caused or contributed to the End-Ordovician, Permian-Triassic, Late Devonian extinctions, and possibly others. Sustained global cooling is distinguished from the temporary climatic effects of flood basalt events or impacts.
Sustained and significant global warming
This would have the opposite effects: expand the area available for tropical species; kill temperate species or force them to migrate towards the poles; possibly cause severe extinctions of polar species; often make the Earth's climate wetter on average, mainly by melting ice and snow and thus increasing the volume of the water cycle. It might also cause anoxic events in the oceans (see below).
Global warming as a cause of mass extinction is supported by several recent studies.
The most dramatic example of sustained warming is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which was associated with one of the smaller mass extinctions. It has also been suggested to have caused the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, during which 20% of all marine families went extinct. Furthermore, the Permian–Triassic extinction event has been suggested to have been caused by warming.
Clathrate gun hypothesis
Clathrates are composites in which a lattice of one substance forms a cage around another. Methane clathrates (in which water molecules are the cage) form on continental shelves. These clathrates are likely to break up rapidly and release the methane if the temperature rises quickly or the pressure on them drops quickly—for example in response to sudden global warming or a sudden drop in sea level or even earthquakes. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so a methane eruption ("clathrate gun") could cause rapid global warming or make it much more severe if the eruption was itself caused by global warming.
The most likely signature of such a methane eruption would be a sudden decrease in the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 in sediments, since methane clathrates are low in carbon-13; but the change would have to be very large, as other events can also reduce the percentage of carbon-13.
It has been suggested that "clathrate gun" methane eruptions were involved in the end-Permian extinction ("the Great Dying") and in the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, which was associated with one of the smaller mass extinctions.
Anoxic events are situations in which the middle and even the upper layers of the ocean become deficient or totally lacking in oxygen. Their causes are complex and controversial, but all known instances are associated with severe and sustained global warming, mostly caused by sustained massive volcanism.
It has been suggested that anoxic events caused or contributed to the Ordovician–Silurian, late Devonian, Permian–Triassic and Triassic–Jurassic extinctions, as well as a number of lesser extinctions (such as the Ireviken, Mulde, Lau, Toarcian and Cenomanian–Turonian events). On the other hand, there are widespread black shale beds from the mid-Cretaceous which indicate anoxic events but are not associated with mass extinctions.
Hydrogen sulfide emissions from the seas
Kump, Pavlov and Arthur (2005) have proposed that during the Permian–Triassic extinction event the warming also upset the oceanic balance between photosynthesising plankton and deep-water sulfate-reducing bacteria, causing massive emissions of hydrogen sulfide which poisoned life on both land and sea and severely weakened the ozone layer, exposing much of the life that still remained to fatal levels of UV radiation.
Oceanic overturn is a disruption of thermo-haline circulation which lets surface water (which is more saline than deep water because of evaporation) sink straight down, bringing anoxic deep water to the surface and therefore killing most of the oxygen-breathing organisms which inhabit the surface and middle depths. It may occur either at the beginning or the end of a glaciation, although an overturn at the start of a glaciation is more dangerous because the preceding warm period will have created a larger volume of anoxic water.
Unlike other oceanic catastrophes such as regressions (sea-level falls) and anoxic events, overturns do not leave easily identified "signatures" in rocks and are theoretical consequences of researchers' conclusions about other climatic and marine events.
Patterns in frequency
It has been suggested variously that extinction events occurred periodically, every 26 to 30 million years, or that diversity fluctuates episodically every ~62 million years. Various ideas attempt to explain the supposed pattern, including the presence of a hypothetical companion star to the sun,  oscillations in the galactic plane, or passage through the Milky Way's spiral arms. However, other authors have concluded the data on marine mass extinctions do not fit with the idea that mass extinctions are periodic, or that ecosystems gradually build up to a point at which a mass extinction is inevitable. Many of the proposed correlations have been argued to be spurious. Others have argued that there is strong evidence supporting periodicity in a variety of records,  and additional evidence in the form of coincident periodic variation in nonbiological geochemical variables. 
Mass extinctions are thought to result when a long-term stress is compounded by a short term shock. Over the course of the Phanerozoic, individual taxa appear to be less likely to become extinct at any time, which may reflect more robust food webs as well as less extinction-prone species and other factors such as continental distribution. However, even after accounting for sampling bias, there does appear to be a gradual decrease in extinction and origination rates during the Phanerozoic. This may represent the fact that groups with higher turnover rates are more likely to become extinct by chance; or it may be an artefact of taxonomy: families tend to become more speciose, therefore less prone to extinction, over time; and larger taxonomic groups (by definition) appear earlier in geological time.
It has also been suggested that the oceans have gradually become more hospitable to life over the last 500 million years, and thus less vulnerable to mass extinctions,[note 1] but susceptibility to extinction at a taxonomic level does not appear to make mass extinctions more or less probable.