What caused the 5 mass extinctions in Earth’s history?

These five mass extinctions, also known as "the Big Five," have shaped the course of evolution and dramatically altered the diversity of life on Earth. But what reasons lie behind these catastrophic events?

Life on Earth has undergone significant changes throughout its existence, with five major mass extinctions standing out as crucial turning points. These cataclysmic events, spanning billions of years, have shaped the course of evolution and determined the dominant lifeforms of each era. For the past few decades, scientists are trying solve the mysteries surrounding these mass extinctions, exploring their causes, effects, and the fascinating creatures that emerged in their aftermath.

Mass extinctions
Dinosaur fossil (Tyrannosaurus Rex) found by archaeologists. Adobe Stock

Late Ordovician: A Sea of Change (443 million years ago)

The Late Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred 443 million years ago, marked a significant transition in Earth’s history. At this time, the majority of life existed in the oceans. Molluscs and trilobites were the dominant species, and the first fishes with jaws made their appearance, setting the stage for future vertebrates.

This extinction event, wiping out approximately 85% of marine species, is believed to have been triggered by a series of glaciations in the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. As glaciers expanded, some species perished, while others adapted to the colder conditions. However, when the ice receded, these survivors faced new challenges, such as changing atmospheric compositions, leading to further losses. The exact cause of the glaciations remains a topic of debate, as the evidence has been obscured by the movement of continents and the regeneration of seafloors.

Surprisingly, this mass extinction did not drastically alter the dominant species on Earth. Many existing forms, including our vertebrate ancestors, persisted in smaller numbers and eventually recovered within a few million years.

Late Devonian: A Slow Decline (372 million-359 million years ago)

The Late Devonian mass extinction, spanning from 372 to 359 million years ago, was characterized by a slow decline rather than a sudden catastrophic event. During this period, the colonization of land by plants and insects was on the rise, with the development of seeds and internal vascular systems. However, land-based herbivorous animals had not yet posed substantial competition to the growing plants.

The causes of this extinction event, known as the Kellwasser and Hangenberg Events, remain enigmatic. Some scientists speculate that a meteorite strike or a nearby supernova could have caused disruptions in the atmosphere. However, others argue that this extinction event was not a true mass extinction but rather a period of increased natural die-offs and a slower rate of evolution.

Permian-Triassic: The Great Dying (252 million years ago)

The Permian-Triassic mass extinction, also known as “The Great Dying,” was the most devastating extinction event in Earth’s history. Occurring approximately 252 million years ago, it resulted in the loss of the majority of species on the planet. Estimates suggest that as many as 90% to 96% of all marine species and 70% of land vertebrates went extinct.

The causes of this catastrophic event remain poorly understood due to the deep burial and scattering of evidence caused by continental drift. The extinction appears to have been relatively short, possibly concentrated within a million years or less. Various factors have been proposed, including shifting atmospheric carbon isotopes, large volcanic eruptions in modern China and Siberia, burning coal beds, and microbial blooms altering the atmosphere. The combination of these factors likely led to a significant climate change that disrupted ecosystems worldwide.

This extinction event profoundly altered the course of life on Earth. Land creatures took millions of years to recover, eventually giving rise to new forms and paving the way for the subsequent eras.

Triassic-Jurassic: The Rise of Dinosaurs (201 million years ago)

The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, which occurred approximately 201 million years ago, was less severe than the Permian-Triassic event but still had a significant impact on life on Earth. During the Triassic period, archosaurs, large crocodile-like reptiles, dominated the land. This extinction event wiped out most of the archosaurs, creating an opportunity for the emergence of an evolved subgroup that would eventually become dinosaurs and birds, dominating the land during the Jurassic period.

The leading theory for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction suggests that volcanic activity in the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province disrupted the composition of the atmosphere. As magma welled up across North America, South America, and Africa, these land masses began to split apart, carrying pieces of the original field across what would become the Atlantic Ocean. Other theories, such as cosmic impacts, have fallen out of favor. It is possible that no singular cataclysm occurred, and this period was simply marked by a faster rate of extinction than evolution.

Cretaceous-Paleogene: The End of the Dinosaurs (66 million years ago)

The Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction (also known as the K-T Extinction), perhaps the most well-known, marked the end of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the Cenozoic era. Approximately 66 million years ago, numerous species, including non-avian dinosaurs, were wiped out. The cause of this extinction is now widely accepted to be the result of a massive asteroid impact.

Geological evidence, such as the presence of elevated levels of iridium in sedimentary layers across the globe, supports the theory of an asteroid impact. The Chicxulub crater in Mexico, formed by the impact, contains iridium anomalies and other elemental signatures directly linking it to the worldwide iridium-rich layer. This event had a profound impact on Earth’s ecosystems, paving the way for the rise of mammals and the diverse lifeforms that now inhabit our planet.

Final thoughts

The five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history have played pivotal roles in shaping the course of life on our planet. From the Late Ordovician to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, each event has brought about significant changes, leading to the emergence of new species and the decline of others. While the causes of these extinctions may still hold mysteries, they serve as crucial reminders of the fragility, resilience and adaptability of life on Earth.

However, the current biodiversity crisis, driven largely by human activities such as deforestation, pollution, and climate change, threatens to disrupt this delicate balance and potentially trigger a sixth major extinction event.

Understanding the past can help us navigate the present and make informed decisions about the future. By studying these major extinctions, scientists can gain insights into the potential consequences of our actions and develop strategies to protect and preserve Earth’s precious biodiversity.

This is the need of the era that we learn from the mistakes of the past and take immediate action to mitigate our impact on the environment to prevent further catastrophic loss of species. The fate of our planet’s diverse ecosystems and the survival of countless species depend on our collective efforts.

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