The Permian Triassic boundary at Meishan, China (Photo: Shuzhong Shen)
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. 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 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 end-Permian extinction is the most severe biotic crisis in the fossil record, with as much as 95% of the marine animal species and a similarly high proportion of terrestrial plants and animals going extinct . This great crisis occurred 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming. The End-Triassic Extinction is probably the least understood of the big five. Most mammal-like reptiles and large amphibians disappeared, as well as early dinosaur groups. In the oceans, this event eliminated conodonts and nearly annihilated corals, ammonites, brachiopods and bivalves. Although it’s almost impossible briefly summarize all the changes in biodiversity associated with both extinction events, we can describe their broad trends.
Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)
Both extinction events are commonly linked to the emplacement of the large igneous provinces of the Siberian Traps and the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. Massive volcanic eruptions with lava flows, released large quantities of sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, thermogenic methane and large amounts of HF, HCl, halocarbons and toxic aromatics and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Furthermore, volcanism contribute gases to the atmosphere, such as Cl, F, and CH3Cl from coal combustion, that suppress ozone formation. Acid rain likely had an impact on freshwater ecosystems and may have triggered forest dieback. Mutagenesis observed in the Lower Triassic herbaceous lycopsid Isoetales has been attributed to increased levels of UV-radiation. Charcoal records point to forest fires as a common denominator during both events. Forest dieback was accompanied by the proliferation of opportunists and pioneers, including ferns and fern allies. Moreover, both events led to major schisms in the dominant terrestrial herbivores and apex predators, including the late Permian extinction of the pariaeosaurs and many dicynodonts and the end-Triassic loss of crurotarsans (van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016).
Aberrant pollen and spores from the end-Triassic extinction interval (scale bars are 20 μm). (a) Ricciisporites
tuberculatus and b) Kraeuselisporites reissingerii (adapted from van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016)
During the end-Permian Event, the woody gymnosperm vegetation (cordaitaleans and glossopterids) were replaced by spore-producing plants (mainly lycophytes) before the typical Mesozoic woody vegetation evolved. The palynological record suggests that wooded terrestrial ecosystems took four to five million years to reform stable ecosystems, while spore-producing lycopsids had an important ecological role in the post-extinction interval. A key factor for plant resilience is the time-scale: if the duration of the ecological disruption did not exceed that of the viability of seeds and spores, those plant taxa have the potential to recover (Traverse, 1988). Palynological records from across Europe provide evidence for complete loss of tree-bearing vegetation reflected in a strong decline in pollen abundance at the end of the Triassic. In the Southern Hemisphere, the vegetation turnover consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.
Comparison of extinction rates for calcareous organisms during the end-Permian and end-Triassic extinction event (from van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016)
Rapid additions of carbon dioxide during extreme events may have driven surface waters to undersaturation. 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. Both extinction events led to near-annihilation of cnidarian clades and other taxa responsible for reef construction, resulting in ‘reef gaps’ that lasted millions of years. Black shales deposited across both extinction events also contain increased concentrations of the biomarker isorenieratane, a pigment from green sulphur bacteria, suggesting that the photic zone underwent prolonged periods of high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide. Following the end-Triassic extinction, Early Jurassic shallow seas witnessed recurrent euxinia over a time span of 25 million years, culminating in the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event.
BAS VAN DE SCHOOTBRUGGE and PAUL B. WIGNALL (2016). A tale of two extinctions: converging end-Permian and end-Triassic scenarios. Geological Magazine, 153, pp 332-354. doi:10.1017/S0016756815000643.
BACHAN, A. & PAYNE, J. L. 2015. Modelling the impact of pulsed CAMP volcanism on pCO2 and δ13C across the Triassic-Jurassic transition. Geological Magazine, published online
Retallack, G.J. 2013. Permian and Triassic greenhouse crises. Gondwana Research 24:90–103.