The Middle Permian mass extinction.

The Kapp Starostin Formation, Festningen section, Spitsbergen. The uppermost of the 3 yellow limestone beds records the Middle Permian mass extinction (Credit: Photographer: Dierk Blomeier. For David P.G. Bond and colleagues, GSA Bulletin, 2015.)

The Kapp Starostin Formation, Festningen section, Spitsbergen. The uppermost of the 3 yellow limestone beds records the Middle Permian mass extinction (Photo Credit: Dierk Blomeier. For David P.G. Bond and colleagues, GSA Bulletin, 2015.)

Extinction is the ultimate fate of all species. The fossil record indicates that more than 95% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. Individuals better adapted to environments are more likely to survive and when a species does fail, it is called a background extinction. Occasionally extinction events reach a global scale, with many species of all ecological types dying out in a near geological instant. These are mass extinctions. They were originally identified in the marine fossil record and have been interpreted as a result of catastrophic events or major environmental changes that occurred too rapidly for organisms to adapt.  Mass extinctions are probably due to a set of different possible causes like basaltic super-eruptions, impacts of asteroids, global climate changes, or continental drift.

George Cuvier, the great French anatomist and paleontologist, was the first to suggested that periodic “revolutions” or catastrophes had befallen the Earth and wiped out a number of species. But under the influence of Lyell’s uniformitarianism, Cuvier’s ideas were rejected as “poor science”. The modern study of mass extinction did not begin until the middle of the twentieth century. One of the most popular of that time was “Revolutions in the history of life” written by Norman Newell in 1967.

The fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has been increasing dramatically for 200 million years and is likely to continue. The two mass extinctions in that period (at 201 million and 66 million years ago) slowed the trend only temporarily. Genera are the next taxonomic level up from species and are easier to detect in fossils. The Phanerozoic is the 540-million-year period in which animal life has proliferated. Chart created by and courtesy of University of Chicago paleontologists J. John Sepkoski, Jr. and David M. Raup.

Biodiversity in the fossil record.  (From Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last 3 decades, mass extinction events  have become the subject of increasingly detailed and multidisciplinary investigations. In 1982, Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup used a simple form of time series analysis at the rank of family to distinguish between background extinction levels and mass extinctions in marine faunas, and identified five major extinction events in Earth’s history: at the end of the Ordovician period, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic and the End Cretaceous. These five events are know as the Big Five. The most recently identified mass extinction occurred during the Middle Permian, about  262 million years ago, and it was first recognised in the marine realm as a turnover among foraminifera, with fusulinaceans among the principal casualties. The crisis also affected numerous other shallow-marine taxa, including corals, bryozoans, brachiopods, bivalves and ammonoids. Until now, all detailed studies have focused on equatorial sections, especially those of South China. That extinction coincide with the Emeishan large igneous province. But, new data indicates that at the same time there was two severe extinctions amongst brachiopods in northern boreal latitudes in the Kapp Starostin Formation of Spitsbergen, an island roughly 890 km north of the Norwegian mainland.

Fusulinids from the Topeka Limestone  (Upper Carboniferous of Kansas, USA) From Wikimedia Commons

Fusulinids from the Topeka Limestone (Upper Carboniferous of Kansas, USA) From Wikimedia Commons

The Kapp Starostin Formation contains cool-water boreal faunas that include abundant siliceous sponges, brachiopods, and bryozoans. The widespread and near-total loss of carbonates across the Boreal Realm also suggests a role for acidification in the crisis.  This extinction predates the end-Permian mass extinction, because a subsequent recovery of brachiopods and especially bivalves is seen in the Late Permian. This post-extinction fauna disappears 10 m below the top of the Kapp Starostin Formation and thus fails to survive until the end of the Permian (Bond et al., 2015). This is a true mass extinction because the new data suggest that about 50 per cent of all marine species died during the event.

Oceanic oxygen depletion represents a potent cause of extinction in marine settings, and is often linked with volcanic activity, warming, and transgression. However,  the role of anoxia in the wider Capitanian extinction scenario remains enigmatic. Volcanically induced effects are multiple and include acidification.


Brachiopods from the Kapp Starostin Formation (Image adapted from Bond et al., 2015)

Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean and interferes with a range of processes, including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like foraminifera, planktonic coccolithophores, pteropods and other molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Ocean acidification in the geological record, is often inferred from a decrease in the accumulation and preservation of CaCO3 in marine sediments, potentially indicated by an increased degree of fragmentation of foraminiferal shells. But, recently, a variety of trace-element and isotopic tools have become available to infer past seawater carbonate chemistry.

Undoubtedly, the proximity of the End Permian extinction, makes difficult to determine if these events are separate or are part of a the same event.


David P.G. Bond, Paul B. Wignall, Michael M. Joachimski, Yadong Sun, Ivan Savov, Stephen E. Grasby, Benoit Beauchamp and Dierk P.G. Blomeier, 2015, An abrupt extinction in the Middle Permian (Capitanian) of the Boreal Realm (Spitsbergen) and its link to anoxia and acidification, Geological Society of America Bulletin, doi: 10.1130/B31216.1

Wignall, P.B., Bond, D.P.G., Kuwahara, K., Kakuwa, Y., Newton, R.J., and Poulton, S.W., 2010, An 80 million year oceanic redox history from Permian to Jurassic pelagic sediments of the Mino-Tamba terrane, SW Japan, and the origin of four mass extinctions: Global and Planetary Change, v. 71, p. 109–123, doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha .2010.01.022.

Wignall, P.B., Bond, D.P.G., Newton, R.J., Haas, J., Hips, K., Wang, W., Jiang, H.-S., Lai, X.-L., Sun, Y.-D., Altiner, D., Védrine, S., and Zajzon, N., 2012, The Capitanian (Middle Permian) mass extinction in western Tethys: A fossil, facies and δ13C study from Hungary and Hydra Island (Greece): Palaios, v. 27, p. 78–89, doi:10.2110/palo.2011.p11-058r.

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