Chinese Science Bulletin, Volume 62, Issue 11: 1119-1135(2017) https://doi.org/10.1360/N972017-00013

What caused the five mass extinctions?

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  • ReceivedJan 6, 2017
  • AcceptedFeb 13, 2017
  • PublishedMar 30, 2017


Although a majority of biologists are convinced that a mass extinction is underway on earth today, the human history with direct observatory data is too short to predict its future trends. At least five mass extinctions occurred during the Phanerozoic Eon, causing the rapid extinction of at least 75% of existing marine species; they also seriously affected species diversity on land once the terrestrial ecosystem developed. The causes and consequences of these mass extinctions have become the most useful analogs for understanding whether the current global ecosystem is experiencing an extinction event. Previous multidisciplinary studies of the extinction patterns of fossil groups and concurrent environmental changes of the five mass extinctions during the past 500 million years (occurring in the end-Ordovician, Late Devonian Frasnian-Famennian, end-Permian, end-Triassic, and end-Cretaceous) suggested that no catastrophic event wiped out all organisms on earth. However, all five mass extinctions were associated with serious environmental deterioration and major paleoclimatic changes.

The end-Ordovician mass extinction, occurring 445.2–443.8 million years ago, consists of two phases separated by an interval dominated by the cold Hirnantia fauna. The wax and wane of glaciation and associated widespread anoxia were the major causes of the two phases of the end-Ordovician mass extinctions. The Late Devonian mass extinction consists of a few different events from the Givetian to the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary, of which the most important is the Kellwasser event around the Frasnian-Famennian boundary. This extinction most seriously affected the coral and stromatoporoid reefs, and caused the extinction of two brachiopod orders (Pentamerida and Atrypida). As of yet, there is no consensus on the cause of this extinction event. Global cooling related to the widespread development of the terrestrial vegetation ecosystem and marine anoxia are the two most plausible scenarios. Although impact events were reported from a few horizons in the Late Devonian, they cannot account for the multiple phases of the Late Devonian mass extinctions. The end-Permian mass extinction about 252 million years ago has been universally documented as the most serious, which caused the disappearances of about 95% of all marine and 75% of all terrestrial species. Based on the latest high-precision geochronology data from South China, this extinction happened within an interval of less than 61 thousand years. This extinction was associated with a sharp negative excursion of δ 13Ccarb. A rapid temperature rise of 6–8 °C also occurred within the extinction interval. The Siberian Traps eruption and volcanism in South China, triggered by the dispersal of the supercontinent Pangea, is the most plausible explanation for the end-Permian mass extinction. The end-Triassic mass extinction at 201.564±0.015 Ma also seriously affected both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Amphibians and reptiles both suffered a great loss during this extinction, and they were subsequently replaced by highly diverse dinosaurs. Marine conodonts and Ceratitida became extinct, and the sponge Demospongea and the brachiopod order Spiriferinida were also greatly affected. Recent studies suggest that the extinction stage may have extended over 10–20 million years, and the volcanism of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province may be the cause. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction has been the best-known event among the general public because it caused the extinction of various dinosaurs that prevailed during the Mesozoic Era. The cause of this extinction has been documented as the extraterrestrial Chicxulub impact event. However, detailed paleontological studies suggested that the extinction is more likely to have been caused by another major volcanism event, the massive eruption of the Deccan Traps.

In summary, global changes in atmospheric CO2 and paleotemperature (both icehouse and greenhouse), oceanic acidification, sea-level changes, and anoxia triggered by massive volcanic eruptions are the most plausible causes of the past extinctions. Massive volcanism not only ejected a huge amount of CO2 and volcanic sulfates, but also caused a massive release of thermogenic CO2 and methane stored in the deposits of inland basins and continental shelves. Extraterrestrial impact, supernova explosion, and solar flares could instantaneously wipe out all organisms on earth, but they are not the main causes of the five mass extinctions experienced in the history of the earth.

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  • Figure 1

    The end-Ordovician extinction pattern and associated environmental changes. Biotic turnover pattern follows Rong and Huang[6], δ 13Ccarb profile is from Finney et al.[15], δ 13Corg and δ 34S are from Zhang et al.[16], paleotemperature profile is from Finnegan et al. [17]

  • Figure 2

    The Late Devonian Frasnian/Famennian mass extinction and associated environmental changes. δ 18Oapatite, δ 13Ccarb and SST are from Joachimski and Buggisch[32], biotic events are after Ma et al.[26]. LKW, Lower Kellwasser event; UKW, Upper Kellwasser event

  • Figure 3

    Temporal relationship between the end-Permian mass extinction and environmental changes. Revised from Shen and Bowring[75]

  • Figure 4

    Temporal relationship between the carbon isotope profiles and the changeover of major fossil groups, and the Central Atlantic Igneous Province around the Triassic-Jurassic transition. δ 13Ccarb, δ 13Corg and ammonoid diversity are from Whiteside and Ward[94]; extinction events of major veterbrate and marine invertebrate groups are from Lucas [88]; U-Pb dates are from Blackburn et al[95].

  • Figure 5

    Temporal relationship between paleotemperature, diversity changes of terrestrial mammals and planktonic foraminifers, the volcanic eruption of Deccan Traps and the impact event (revised from Wilf et al. [107]). U-Pb and Ar-Ar geochronology are respectively from Schoene et al. [108] and Renne et al. [109], diversity profile of terrestrial mammals is from Wilson[110]

  • Figure 6

    Correlation between five mass extinctions and volcanism, extraterrestrial impacts and global environmental changes

  • 沈树忠

    1961年10月生. 中国科学院南京地质古生物研究所研究员、博士生导师. 主要从事腕足动物、牙形类化石系统古生物学、二叠纪地层学、二叠纪末生物大灭绝、全球生物古地理等研究并取得了系统性和创新性成果. 现任“国际二叠纪地层分会”主席和国家自然科学基金委员会重大项目首席科学家.

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