Monday, 19 September 2011

Big Five Mass Extinction Events

Extinction of the dinosaurs, artworkAlthough the Cretaceous-Tertiary (or K-T) extinction event is the most well-known because it wiped out the dinosaurs, a series of other mass extinction events has occurred throughout the history of the Earth, some even more devastating than K-T. Mass extinctions are periods in Earth's history when abnormally large numbers of species die out simultaneously or within a limited time frame. The most severe occurred at the end of the Permian period when 96% of all species perished. This along with K-T are two of the Big Five mass extinctions, each of which wiped out at least half of all species. Many smaller scale mass extinctions have occurred, indeed the disappearance of many animals and plants at the hands of man in prehistoric, historic and modern times will eventually show up in the fossil record as mass extinctions. Discover more about Earth's major extinction events below.

Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction

000364

The third largest extinction in Earth's history, the Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction had two peak dying times separated by hundreds of thousands of years. During the Ordovician, most life was in the sea, so it was sea creatures such as trilobites, brachiopods and graptolites that were drastically reduced in number. In all, some 85% of sea life was wiped out. An ice age has been blamed for the extinctions - a huge ice sheet in the southern hemisphere caused climate change and a fall in sea level, and messed with the chemistry of the oceans.

Late Devonian mass extinction

Late Devonian landscape, artwork

Three quarters of all species on Earth died out in the Late Devonian mass extinction, though it may have been a series of extinctions over several million years, rather than a single event. Life in the shallow seas were the worst affected, and reefs took a hammering, not returning to their former glory until new types of coral evolved over 100 million years later. In fact, much of the sea bed became devoid of oxygen, rendering it effectively out of bounds for anything except bacteria. Changes in sea level, asteroid impacts, climate change and new kinds of plants messing with the soil have all been blamed for these extinctions.

Permian mass extinction

Early Earth, computer artwork

The Permian mass extinction has been nicknamed The Great Dying, since a staggering 96% of species died out. All life on Earth today is descended from the 4% of species that survived. The event turns out to have been complex, as there were at least two separate phases of extinction spread over millions of years. Marine creatures were particularly badly affected and insects suffered the only mass extinction of their history. Many causes have been proposed for the event: asteroid impact, flood basalt eruptions, catastrophic methane release, a drop in oxygen levels, sea level fluctuations or some combination of these.

Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction

Artist's impression of Triassic period landscape.

During the final 18 million years of the Triassic period, there were two or three phases of extinction whose combined effects created the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event. Climate change, flood basalt eruptions and an asteroid impact have all been blamed for this loss of life. Many types of animal died out, including lots of marine reptiles, some large amphibians, many reef-building creatures and large numbers of cephalopod molluscs. Roughly half of all the species alive at the time became extinct. Strangely, plants were not so badly affected.

Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction

Extinction of the dinosaurs, artwork

The Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction - also known as the K/T extinction - is famed for the death of the dinosaurs. However, many other organisms perished at the end of the Cretaceous including the ammonites, many flowering plants and the last of the pterosaurs. Some groups had been in decline for several million years before the final event that destroyed them all. It's suggested that the decline was due to flood basalt eruptions affecting the world's climate, combined with drastic falls in sea level. Then a huge asteroid or comet struck the seabed near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and was the straw that broke the camel's back.

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