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Major Mass Extinctions

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During the billions of years of its history, life on Earth has weathered some bumps in the road. As species evolved and diversified, several major mass extinction events changed the course of life. In such events, a significant number of living species died off over a broad geographic area during a relatively short span of geologic time. Now, as a sixth major mass extinction event overtakes Earth, a close look at historical drops in biodiversity—and the reasons behind them—can provide insight into current and future declines. Here are overviews of six major mass extinctions, from oldest to most recent.(Read E.O. Wilson's Britannica essay on mass extinction.)

  • Ordovician-Silurian extinction

    Occurring about 443.8 million years ago, the Ordovician-Silurian extinction was the first major mass extinction event. It concluded the Ordovician Period, which is known for a dramatic increase in marine life and the appearance of early terrestrial plants. The extinction event suppressed many of these changes, eliminating some 71 percent of all species living right before the event. While the cause of the extinction is not entirely clear, the leading theory points to a phenomenon called silicate weathering. Silicates are minerals found in Earth’s crust that store carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that can increase the planet’s temperature. According to the theory, after silicates absorbed a certain amount of carbon dioxide, Earth grew colder, and ice sheets spread over the surface of the planet. Once the ice had physically blocked the silicates, carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere again, warming the planet enough to melt the ice sheets and expose the silicates once more, and thus the cycle repeated itself in a feedback loop. This phenomenon would have caused fluctuations in sea level and temperature so drastic that marine animals unable to survive the changing conditions would go extinct.

  • Late Devonian extinction

    Despite eliminating about 70 percent of all marine species living just before it began, the Late Devonian extinction, which occurred some 372 million years ago, was one of the least severe major mass extinctions. It is also one of the least understood. Unfolding over many millions of years, the extinction event proceeded in a gradual manner, meaning that the rate at which species were going extinct was not much higher than it had been previously. However, the rate at which new species were emerging plummeted during the interval. The changes in extinction and speciation rates were likely caused by overlapping environmental stressors, which could have ranged from global warming to the impacts of extraterrestrial objects. The Late Devonian Epoch was marked by ocean anoxia, or insufficient oxygen—a condition that may have wiped out many marine species. Yet the cause of the anoxia remains uncertain. One theory credits increased continental nutrient runoff: if more nutrients flowed from the land to the ocean, more algae would bloom in the water, eventually depleting it of oxygen. Researchers continue to debate this and other possible mechanisms behind the extinction.

  • Permian-Triassic extinction

    The Permian-Triassic extinction, sometimes called the “Great Dying,” is the greatest mass extinction event in the fossil record. Occurring some 252 million years ago, it wiped out at least 80 percent of marine invertebrate species and approximately 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species living just before the event. More than half of all animal families may have gone extinct—a staggering decrease in Earth’s biodiversity. The exact length of the extinction event is unclear: some scientists contend that it lasted 15 million years, while others assert that it took only tens of thousands. While these different time-frame estimates imply different causes of extinction, most theories center on anomalies in temperature and the carbon cycle. Studies suggest that high ocean temperatures could have killed many organisms. In addition, a sequence of volcanic eruptions that formed a region of volcanic rock called the Siberian Traps may have emitted clouds of ash that blocked sunlight and thereby disrupted food chains.

  • Late Triassic extinctions

    The Late Triassic extinctions, which took place mainly across the boundary between the Norian and Rhaetian stages (about 208 million years ago), involved the elimination of many amphibian and reptile species on land and many invertebrate, fish, and reptile species in the seas. These extinctions, as well as the environmental changes that accompanied them, cleared the way for dinosaurs to assume dominance on land. No single event precipitated the biodiversity losses; rather, they occurred gradually during a global disturbance of the carbon cycle. That anomaly likely involved massive greenhouse gas emissions from large-scale volcanic activity, which could have contributed to a rise in global temperature that many species couldn't survive.

  • Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction

    Perhaps the most famous of the major mass extinctions is the Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K–Pg, extinction, which occurred some 66 million years ago. It marked the end of about 67 percent of all species living immediately beforehand, including the non-avian dinosaurs. As a result, mammals and birds (avian dinosaurs!) were able to gain dominance on land. The overwhelming scientific consensus holds that the impact of a giant extraterrestrial object was the primary cause of the extinction. An asteroid fragment with an estimated diameter of 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles, struck Earth, sending huge waves of heat, dust, and soot around the planet. The airborne soot blocked sunlight, forcing ecosystems to collapse. The main evidence of this event is an enormous impact crater found near the Yucatán Peninsula in northeastern Central America.

  • Sixth mass extinction

    Mass extinctions are not limited to prehistoric times: a sixth mass extinction is underway right now. Fueled by anthropogenic, or human-driven, processes, conditions for life are changing drastically, speeding up the rate of biodiversity loss. Species are now going extinct between 100 and 1,000 times faster than they likely would have without anthropogenic influences. At that rate, scientists estimate that 50 percent of all living species on Earth could become extinct by 2100. Major drivers of biodiversity loss include the destruction of natural habitats, introduction of invasive species, and overharvesting of wild animals. Climate change associated with global warming—caused by the overproduction of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, largely through the burning of fossil fuels—is far outpacing species’ ability to adapt. Currently, the ocean is warming 10 to 100 times faster than it did during the deadly Permian-Triassic extinction. Given the dire environmental consequences of much anthropogenic activity, scientists are urging political and corporate institutions, as well as individuals, to take action to protect the remaining biodiversity of the planet.