Home Geology Mass Extinctions in Earth’s History

Mass Extinctions in Earth’s History

A mass extinction is a widespread and rapid decrease in the biodiversity of life on Earth. They occur when a significant portion of the world’s species die out in a relatively short period of time. The most well-known mass extinction event is the extinction of the dinosaurs, which occurred about 65 million years ago. However, there have been several mass extinctions throughout Earth’s history, with varying causes such as asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, and climate change. Some scientists believe that the planet is currently experiencing a sixth mass extinction, caused by human activity such as habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change.

Volcanic Eruption in Holuhraun Iceland

There have been five known mass extinctions in the history of the Earth. These events are referred to as the “Big Five” mass extinctions. They are:

  1. The End-Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred around 443 million years ago and wiped out 60% of marine species.
  2. The Late Devonian mass extinction, which occurred around 359 million years ago and wiped out 75% of species.
  3. The Permian-Triassic mass extinction, which occurred around 252 million years ago and wiped out 96% of species.
  4. The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, which occurred around 201 million years ago and wiped out 80% of species.
  5. The Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, which occurred around 66 million years ago and wiped out 75% of species, including the dinosaurs.

It is worth noting that some scientists also include the Holocene extinction ( ongoing extinction) which is caused by human activity and is already causing loss of biodiversity.

The End-Ordovician mass extinction

The End-Ordovician mass extinction, also known as the Ordovician-Silurian extinction, was a major extinction event that occurred around 443 million years ago, at the boundary between the Ordovician and Silurian periods. This event was one of the five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history and one of the most severe, wiping out 60% of marine species.

The cause of the End-Ordovician mass extinction is still debated, but several theories have been proposed. One theory is that a massive volcanic eruption in what is now Norway released huge amounts of greenhouse gases, leading to a rapid warming of the planet and mass extinction of marine life. Another theory is that a comet or asteroid impact caused the extinction. Some scientists also propose that the extinction was caused by a combination of factors such as a drop in sea level, changes in ocean chemistry, and a decline in biodiversity due to over-exploitation of resources.

The extinction primarily affected shallow-water marine organisms, such as trilobites, brachiopods, and graptolites, but also had a significant impact on deep-sea life. The event also had a profound effect on the evolution of life on Earth, paving the way for the emergence of new groups of organisms and the radiation of life in the Silurian period.

The Late Devonian mass extinction

The Late Devonian mass extinction was a major extinction event that occurred around 359 million years ago, at the boundary between the Late Devonian and Early Carboniferous periods. This event was one of the five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history and one of the most severe, wiping out 75% of species.

The cause of the Late Devonian mass extinction is still debated, but several theories have been proposed. One theory is that a massive volcanic eruption in what is now North America and Europe released huge amounts of greenhouse gases, leading to a rapid warming of the planet and mass extinction of marine life. Another theory is that a comet or asteroid impact caused the extinction. Some scientists also propose that the extinction was caused by a combination of factors such as sea level changes, changes in ocean chemistry, and a decline in biodiversity due to over-exploitation of resources.

The extinction primarily affected marine organisms, such as trilobites, brachiopods, and coral reefs, but also had a significant impact on terrestrial life, wiping out many of the early terrestrial plants and animals. The event also had a profound effect on the evolution of life on Earth, paving the way for the emergence of new groups of organisms and the radiation of life in the Carboniferous and Permian periods.

The Permian-Triassic mass extinction

The Permian-Triassic mass extinction, also known as the “Great Dying,” was a major extinction event that occurred around 252 million years ago, at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods. This event was one of the five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history and the most severe, wiping out 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species.

The cause of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction is still debated, but several theories have been proposed. One theory is that a massive volcanic eruption in what is now Siberia released huge amounts of greenhouse gases, leading to a rapid warming of the planet and mass extinction of life. Another theory is that a comet or asteroid impact caused the extinction. Some scientists also propose that the extinction was caused by a combination of factors such as sea level changes, changes in ocean chemistry, and a decline in biodiversity due to over-exploitation of resources.

The extinction affected organisms of all sizes and habitats, from single-celled organisms to complex animals, and from shallow-water marine organisms to terrestrial organisms. The event also had a profound effect on the evolution of life on Earth, paving the way for the emergence of new groups of organisms and the radiation of life in the Triassic period. The recovery from the event took around 10 million years which is considered a long period of time.

The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction

The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction was a major extinction event that occurred around 201 million years ago, at the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. This event was one of the five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history, wiping out 80% of species.

The cause of the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction is still debated, but several theories have been proposed. One theory is that a massive volcanic eruption in what is now Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) released huge amounts of greenhouse gases, leading to a rapid warming of the planet and mass extinction of life. Another theory is that a comet or asteroid impact caused the extinction. Some scientists also propose that the extinction was caused by a combination of factors such as sea level changes, changes in ocean chemistry, and a decline in biodiversity due to over-exploitation of resources.

The extinction primarily affected marine organisms, such as ammonoids, conodonts and marine reptiles, but also had a significant impact on terrestrial life, wiping out many of the early terrestrial plants and animals. The event also had a profound effect on the evolution of life on Earth, paving the way for the emergence of new groups of organisms and the radiation of life in the Jurassic period. It was considered that this extinction event had a major impact on the diversification of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals.

The Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction

The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction, also known as the K-T extinction, was a major extinction event that occurred around 66 million years ago, at the boundary between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. This event was one of the five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history, wiping out 75% of species, including the dinosaurs.

The most widely accepted theory for the cause of the K-Pg extinction is the impact of a large asteroid or comet, which created the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The impact would have caused massive wildfires, tsunamis, and a “nuclear winter” effect, with dust and debris blocking out sunlight and drastically reducing temperatures. The combination of these effects would have led to the mass extinction of life on Earth.

The extinction affected organisms of all sizes and habitats, from single-celled organisms to large dinosaurs. Marine organisms such as ammonites, rudist bivalves, and foraminifers were also severely affected, as well as many groups of plants. However, not all life on Earth was wiped out, and many groups of organisms, including birds, mammals, and reptiles, survived and went on to diversify and radiate in the Paleogene and Neogene periods. The K-Pg extinction event marked the end of the Mesozoic Era and the beginning of the Cenozoic Era.

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