Ocean acidification and the end-Permian mass extinction

 

Permian Seafloor Photograph by University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History.

Permian Seafloor
Photograph by University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History.

About one third of the carbon dioxide released by anthropogenic activity is absorbed by the oceans. But the CO2 uptake lowers the pH and alters the chemical balance of the oceans. This phenomenon is called ocean acidification, and is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years (Gillings, 2014; Hönisch et al. 2012). 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 planktonic coccolithophores, foraminifera, pteropods and other molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Rapid additions of carbon dioxide during extreme events in Earth history, including the end-Permian mass extinction (252 million years ago) and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, 56 million years ago) may have driven surface waters to undersaturation.

Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)

Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)

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 about 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming.  The cause or causes of the Permian extinction remain a mystery but new data indicates that the extinction had a duration of 60,000 years and may be linked to massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps. The same study found evidence that 10,000 years before the die-off, the ocean experienced a pulse of light carbon that most likely led to a spike of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Volcanism and coal burning also contribute gases to the atmosphere, such as Cl, F, and CH3Cl from coal combustion, that suppress ozone formation.

Image that shows field work in the United Arab Emirates. Credit: D. Astratti

Image that shows field work in the United Arab Emirates. Credit: D. Astratti

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. The boron isotope composition of carbonate samples obtained from a shallow-marine platform section at Wadi Bih on the Musandam Peninsula, United Arab Emirates, allowed to reconstruct seawater pH values and atmospheric pCO2 concentrations and obtain for the very first time, direct evidence of ocean acidification in the Permo-Triassic boundary. The evidence indicates that the first phase of extinction was coincident with a slow injection of carbon into the atmosphere, and ocean pH remained stable. During the second extinction pulse, however, a rapid and large injection of carbon caused an abrupt acidification event that drove the preferential loss of heavily calcified marine biota (Clarkson et al, 2015).

The increasing evidence that the end-Permian mass extinction was precipitated by rapid release of CO2 into Earth’s atmosphere is a valuable reminder for an immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.

 

References:

Clarkson MO, Kasemann SA, Wood RA, Lenton TM, Daines SJ, Richoz S, Ohnemueller F, Meixner A, Poulton SW, Tipper ET. Ocean acidification and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. Science, 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa0193

Feng, Q., Algeo, T.J., Evolution of oceanic redox conditions during the Permo-Triassic transition: Evidence from deepwater radiolarian facies, Earth-Sci. Rev. (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2013.12.003

Hönisch, A. Ridgwell, D. N. Schmidt, E. Thomas, S. J. Gibbs, A. Sluijs, R. Zeebe, L. Kump, R. C. Martindale, S. E. Greene, W. Kiessling, J. Ries, J. C. Zachos, D. L. Royer, S. Barker, T. M. Marchitto Jr., R. Moyer, C. Pelejero, P. Ziveri, G. L. Foster, B. Williams, The geological record of ocean acidification. Science 335, 1058–1063 (2012).

Kump, L.R., T.J. Bralower, and A. Ridgwell (2009)  Ocean acidification in deep time. Oceanography 22(4):94–107, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2009.100

Seth D. Burgess, Samuel Bowring, and Shu-zhong Shen, High-precision timeline for Earth’s most severe extinction, PNAS 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1317692111

 

The Anthropocene defaunation process.

 

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

In 2000,  Paul Crutzen proposed use the term Anthropocene to designate the last two hundred years of human history and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. Although there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, it has been defined, primarily, by significant and measurable increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from ice cores and other geologic features including synthetic organic compounds, radionuclides and ocean acidification.

Another marker for the Anthropocene is the current biodiversity crisis. The term defaunation was created to designate the declining of top predators and herbivores triggered by human activity, that results in a lack of agents that control the components of the ecosystems vegetation.

Global population declines in mammals and birds represented in numbers of individuals per 10,000 km2 for mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

Global population declines in mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014).

Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. We are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Although anthropogenic climate change is playing a growing role, the primary drivers of modern extinctions seem to be habitat loss, human predation, and introduced species (Briggs, 2011). The same drivers that contributed to ancient megafaunal and island extinctions.

SConsequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

The consequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

 

One of the most famous and well-documented extinctions come from Madagascar. Pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and large lemurs went extinct due to human hunting or habitat disturbance.  A very interesting study by Burney et al. (2003) tracked the decline of coprophilous Sporormiella fungus spores in sediments due to reduced megafaunal densities after the human arrival on the island. Another well documented case is the Moa extinction in New Zealand. Recent radiocarbon dating and population modeling suggests that their disappearance occurred within 100 years of first human arrival. A large number of  land birds across Oceania suffered a similar fate beginning about 3500 years ago.

Some biologist predict that the sixth extinction  may result in a 50% loss of the plants and animals on our planet by AD 2100, which would cause not only the collapse of ecosystems but also the loss of food economies, and medicinal resources.

References:

Richard N. Holdaway, Morten E. Allentoft, Christopher Jacomb, Charlotte L. Oskam, Nancy R. Beavan, Michael Bunce. An extremely low-density human population exterminated New Zealand moa. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5436 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6436

Rodolfo Dirzo et al., Defaunation in the Anthropocene, Science 345, 401 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1251817

Braje, T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.08.003

 

 

The plant fossil record and the extinction events.

Odontopteris lingulata, seed fern from the Late  Late Pennsylvanian to Early Permian. (Image Credit: Taylor et al, 2009)

Odontopteris lingulata, seed fern from the Late Late Pennsylvanian to Early Permian. (Image Credit: Taylor et al, 2009)

Mass extinctions has shaped the global diversity of our planet several times during the geological ages. 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.

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, Frasnian (Late Devonian), Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous. But the plant fossil record reveals a different pattern of major taxonomic extinctions compared with marine organisms. The first of them took place at the Carboniferous-Permian transition, which is interpreted as result of the collapse of the tropical wetlands in Euramerica. The second mass extinction corresponds to the end-Permian event.

Glossopteris sp., seed ferns, Permian - Triassic - Houston Museum of Natural Science (From Wikimedia Commons)

Glossopteris sp., seed ferns, Permian – Triassic – Houston Museum of Natural Science (From Wikimedia Commons)

At the late Carboniferous the characteristic wetland families disappeared (e.g. Flemingitaceae, Diaphorodendraceae, Tedeleaceae, Urnatopteridaceae, Alethopteridaceae, Cyclopteridaceae, Neurodontopteridaceae). The downfall of rainforests probably reflects the complexity of the environmental changes that were taking place during the late Moscovian-early Sakmarian time interval (DiMichele et al., 2006, Sahney et al., 2010). This collapse probably drove the rapid diversification of Carboniferous tetrapods (amphibians and reptiles) in Euramerica (Sahney et al., 2010).

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.

Schematic illustration comparing the three extinction events analized (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

Schematic illustration comparing the three extinction events analized (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

At the end-Triassic event,  the vegetation turnover in the Southern Hemisphere  consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

The end-Cretaceous biotic crisis had a significant effect on marine and terrestrial faunas, and caused localized loss of species diversity in vegetation. Patagonia shows a reduction in diversity and relative abundance in almost all plant groups from the latest Maastrichtian to the Danian, although only a few true extinctions occurred (Barreda et al, 2013). The nature of vegetational change in the south polar region suggests that terrestrial ecosystems were already responding to relatively rapid climate change prior to the K–Pg catastrophe.

Two examples of grains pollen from the Lopez de Bertodano Formation: Podocarpidites sp. (left) and Nothofagidites asperus (right)

Two examples of grains pollen: Podocarpidites sp. (left) and Nothofagidites asperus (right)

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).

References:

Cascales-Miñana, B., and C. J. Cleal, 2014, The plant fossil record reflects just two great extinction events. Terra Nova. vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 195–200. DOI: 10.1111/ter.12086

Bambach, R.K., Knoll, A.H. and Wang, S.C., 2004. Origination, extinction, and mass depletions of marine diversity. Paleobiology, 30, 522–542.

Mayhew, Peter J.; Gareth B. Jenkins, Timothy G. Benton (January 7, 2008). “A long-term association between global temperature and biodiversity, origination and extinction in the fossil record”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275 (1630): 47–53.

Sahney, S., Benton, M.J. & Falcon-Lang, H.J. (2010). “Rainforest collapse triggered Pennsylvanian tetrapod diversification in Euramerica” (PDF). Geology 38 (12): 1079–1082. doi:10.1130/G31182.1.

 

The palynological record and the extinction events.

The main palynological provinces at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

The main palynological provinces at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

Pollen and other palynomorphs proved to be an extraordinary tool to palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. In 1921, Gunnar Erdtman, a Swedish botanist, was the first to suggest this application for fossil pollen study. Like spores, pollen grains reflects the ecology of their parent plants and their habitats and provide a continuous record of their evolutionary history. Pollen analysis involves the quantitative examination of spores and pollen at successive horizons through a core, specially in lake, marsh or delta sediments. The morphology of pollen grains is diverse. Gymnosperm pollen often is saccate (grains with two or three air sacs attached to the central body), while Angiosperm pollen shows more variation and covers a multitude of combinations of features: they could be  in groups of four (tetrads),  in pairs (dyads),  or single (monads). The individual grains can be inaperturate, or have one or more pores, or slit-like apertures or colpi (monocolpate, tricolpate).

Since the 1980s, many fossil pollen data sets were developed specifically to reconstruct past climate change.

Aquilapollenites quadricretaeus and Nothofagidites kaitangata

Aquilapollenites quadricretaeus and Nothofagidites kaitangata

 

The palynological record across the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary  is a unique global  marker that can be use as template to asses the causal mechanism behind other major extinction events in Earths history. Four major palynological provinces have been recognized based on distinctive angiosperm pollen and fern spores of restricted geographic and stratigraphic distribution. The Aquilapollenites Province had a northern circumpolar distribution that extended from Siberia, northern China, Japon and the western North America. The Normapolles Province occupied eastern North America,  Europe and western Asia. The Palmae Province occupied equatorial regions in the Late Cretacic and included SouthAmerica, Africa and India. Finally, the Notofagidites Province that extended across southern South America, Antartica, New Zeland and Australia.

During the Late Cretaceous the global climate change has been associated with episodes of outgassing from major volcanic events, orbital cyclicity and tectonism before ending with the cataclysm caused by a large bolide impact at Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Although, during the middle Maastrichtian, there was a short-lived warming event related to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the first Deccan eruption phase, the global climate cooled during the latest Maastrichtian and across the K–Pg boundary (Wang et al., 2014; Brusatte et al., 2014). The variations in floral composition reflect these paleoclimatic changes.

Fern spike adapted from Bercovicci

Fern spike adapted from Bercovicci

Mainly angiosperms, disappear at the boundary, as evidenced the palynofloral records of North America and New Zealand. Patagonia shows a reduction in diversity and relative abundance in almost all plant groups from the latest Maastrichtian to the Danian, although only a few true extinctions occurred (Barreda et al, 2013).  The nature of vegetational change in the south polar region suggests that terrestrial ecosystems were already responding to relatively rapid climate change prior to the K–Pg catastrophe.

The earliest Paleocene vegetation shows an anomalous concentration of fern spores just above the level of palynological extinction. R. H. Tschudy, in 1984,  was the first to recognize this very distinctive pattern when he analyzed samples from the K/PG boundary and observed that just after the extinction event, the palynological assemblages were dominated by a high abundance of fern spores.

Schematic illustration comparing the three extinction events analized (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

Schematic illustration comparing the three extinction events analized (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

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. At the end-Triassic event,  the vegetation turnover in the Southern Hemisphere  consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

Despite their difference, these three extinction events are consequences of dramatic environmental upheavals that generated comparable extinction patterns, and similar phases of vegetation recovery but at different temporal scales. First, all these events share a similar pattern of a short-term bloom of opportunistic “crisis” taxa proliferating in the devastated environment. Second, there’s a pulse in pioneer communities (spore spike). Third , a recovery in diversity including the evolution of new taxa. Furthermore, the longer the extreme environmental conditions last the greater is the extinction rate and the extinction patterns between autotrophs and heterotrophs, and between terrestrial and marine faunas become more similar (Vajda and Bercovici, 2014).

 

References:

Vivi Vajda & Antoine Bercovici (2014); The global vegetation pattern across the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction interval: A template for other extinction events; Global and Planetary Change (advance online publication) Open Access DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2014.07.014, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921818114001477

Vajda, V., Raine, J.I., 2003. Pollen and spores in marine Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary sediments at mid–Waipara River, North Canterbury, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 46, 255–273

Wang, Y., Huang, C., Sun, B., Quan, C., Wu, J., Lin, Z., 2014. Paleo-CO2 variation trends and the Cretaceous greenhouse climate. Earth-Science Reviews 129, 136–147.

Vanessa C. Bowman, Jane E. Francis, Rosemary A. Askinb, James B. Riding, Graeme T. Swindles, Latest Cretaceous–earliest Paleogene vegetation and climate change at the high southern latitudes: palynological evidence fromSeymour Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 408. 26-47. DOI 10.1016/j.palaeo.2014.04.018

Barreda VD, Cúneo NR, Wilf P, Currano ED, Scasso RA, et al. (2012) Cretaceous/Paleogene Floral Turnover in Patagonia: Drop in Diversity, Low Extinction, and a Classopollis Spike. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52455. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052455

Brusatte, S. L., Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., Carrano, M. T., Evans, D. C., Lloyd, G. T., Mannion, P. D., Norell, M. A., Peppe, D. J., Upchurch, P., and Williamson, T. E. In press. The extinction of the dinosaurs.Biological Reviews

The Winter of Our Discontent: short-term cooling following the Chicxulub impact.

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The K-T impact by Don Davis.

The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction that followed the  Chicxulub impact was one of the five great Phanerozoic  mass extinctions. The impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT and produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. Model simulations suggest that the amount of sunlight that reached Earth’s surface was reduced by approximately 20%.This decrease of sunlight caused a drastic short-term global reduction in temperature. This phenomenon is called “impact winter”.

Cold and darkness lasted for a period of months to years.  Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. This period of reduced solar radiation may only have lasted several months to decades. Three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared. Marine ecosystems lost about half of their species while freshwater environments shows low extinction rates, about 10% to 22% of genera.

Three factors can be associated with the impact winter in marine and fresh water enviroments. First, starvation caused by the stop of photosynthesis. Second, the loss of dissolved oxygen. Third, the low temperatures. The flux of organic detritus to the sea floor also

A paleogeographic map of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vellekoop, 2014)

Three factors can be associated with the impact winter in marine and fresh water environments. First, starvation caused by the stop of photosynthesis. Second, the loss of dissolved oxygen. Third, the low temperatures. Because the late Cretaceous climate was warm, a major challenge for aquatic organisms, especially in inland waters, may have been the persistence of low temperatures. Additionally, the vapour produced by the impact  could have led to global acid rain and a dramatic acidification of marine surface waters.

Fossil evidence for this impact winter was recovered in the Brazos River region of Texas.  The biostratigraphy of the section presents the Ir anomaly, and impact-related tsunami beds. The age of the outcrops was updated using  planktonic foraminifera and  dinocysts.

The “impact winter”  model is supported by a migration of cool, boreal dinoflagellate species into the subtropic Tethyan realm directly across the K–Pg boundary interval and the ingression of boreal benthic foraminifera into the deeper parts of the Tethys Ocean, interpreted to reflect millennial timescale changes in ocean circulation following the impact (Vellekoop, 2014).

References:

Johan Vellekoop, Appy Sluijs, Jan Smit, Stefan Schouten, Johan W. H. Weijers, Jaap S. Sinningh Damsté, and Henk Brinkhuis, Rapid short-term cooling following the Chicxulub impact at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, PNAS (2014) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319253111

Douglas S. Robertson, William M. Lewis, Peter M. Sheehan and Owen B. Toon, K-Pg extinction patterns in marine and freshwater environments: The impact winter model, Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, JUL 2013, DOI: 10.1002/jgrg.20086.

Poirot and the mysterious case of the Permian extinction.

 

Siberian flood-basalt flows in Putorana, Taymyr Peninsula.(From Earth science: Lethal volcanism, Paul B. Wignall, 2011,  Nature 477, 285–286 )

Siberian flood-basalt flows in Putorana, Taymyr Peninsula.(From Earth science: Lethal volcanism, Paul B. Wignall, 2011, Nature 477, 285–286 )

On the winter of 1934 during travel across Europe on board of the Orient Express Hercules Poirot, the famous Belgian detective faced the most intriguing and defiance case of his career: the murder of Mr. Ratchett. During the investigation Poirot reveals the real identity of the victim and the horrible crime that he committed in the past. Poirot also discovered that everyone on the coach had motives to kill Ratchett. With the help of Mr. Bouc, an acquaintance of Poirot and director of the company operating the Orient Express, Poirot arrives at two conclusions: first, a stranger boarded the train and murdered Ratchett; second, that all 13 people on the coach were complicit in the murder.

When Agatha Christie created this complicated plot in 1934, she never heard about the most perfect and yet mysterious death scene of all time: the Permo-Triassic extinction event. But that wasn’t her fault. Despite Cuvier’s  notable remarks about massive periodic catastrophes or “revolutions” found in the fossil record, scientists only started to focus on the massive extinctions in the middle of the twentieth century.

Western Pangea during the Late Permian (From Scotesse, 2010)

Western Pangea during the Late Permian (From Scotesse, 2010)

The end-Permian extinction is the most severe biotic crisis in the fossil record. This great crisis occurred about 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming. The extinction had a duration of 60,000 years. For years there was a great debate about the cause or multiple causes of this catastrophic event, so Douglas Erwin, in 1993,  used Poirot’s second hypothesis to explain the Permo-Triassic event.  He called this hypothesis “The Murder on the Orient Express Model”. But what forces converged to wipe out almost 97% of species on Earth?

At the Permian Period, almost all land masses were reunited in one single supercontinent: Pangea, which stretched from the northern to the southern pole. Due to the formation of this supercontinent, the habitable marine area was reduced and the climate showed severe extremes with great seasonal fluctuations between wet and dry conditions. Ten thousand years before the extinction event there was a spike of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that  led to ocean acidification and warmer temperatures.

Gallery_Image_11433

The permian triassic boundary at Meishan, China (Photo: Shuzhong Shen)

Massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia covered more than 2 millions of km 2 with lava flows, releasing more carbon in the atmosphere and high amounts of fluorine and chlorine increasing the climatic inestability. Warmer oceans, possibly had melted frozen methane located in marine sediments which pushed the global temperatures to higher levels.

Recently, a study analyzing rock samples from Meishan, China, pointed a new suspect: a microbe, called Methanosarcina. This microbe is related to a superexponential burst in the carbon cycle and a spike the availability of nickel. But, some scientist remain sceptical about when Methanosarcina actually evolved.

We are close to find the answer to the Great Dying, but thus far, the best possible explanation for this severe extinction still is: THEY ALL DID IT!

References:

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Collins Crime Club.

Douglas H. Erwin, Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago, Princeton University Press, 2006

Seth D. Burgess, Samuel Bowring, and Shu-zhong Shen, High-precision timeline for Earth’s most severe extinction, PNAS 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1317692111

Daniel H. Rothman, Gregory P. Fournier, Katherine L. French, Eric J. Alm, Edward A. Boyle, Changqun Cao, and Roger E. Summons (2014) “Methanogenic burst in the end-Permian carbon cycle,” PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318106111

The sixth mass extinction: the human impact on biodiversity

800px-Ice_age_fauna_of_northern_Spain_-_Mauricio_Antón

Woolly mammoths in a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain (Author: Mauricio Antón) From Wikipedia Commons

At the beginning of the nineteenth century George Cuvier, the great French anatomist and paleontologist,  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”. One century after Cuvier definition of catastrophism, Chamberlain proposed that faunal major changes through time were under the control of epeirogenic movement of the continents and ocean basins. Despite Chamberlain’s article, the modern study of mass extinction did not begin until the middle of the twentieth century with a series of papers focused on the Permian extinction. One of the most popular of that time was “Revolutions in the history of life” written by Norman Newell in 1967.

Mass extinctions had shaped the global diversity of our planet several times during the geological ages. They are major patterns in macroevolution. Andrew Knoll defines them as perturbations of the biosphere which seem instantaneous when it is observed through the geological record.

The ‘‘Big Five’’ extinction events as identified by Raup and Sepkoski (1982)

The ‘‘Big Five’’ extinction events as identified by Raup and Sepkoski (1982)

In 1982, Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup identified five mass extinctions. The first took place at the end of the Ordovician period, about 450 million years ago.  Now, according to the current rates of extinction, we are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

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. But now, a group of scientists like Edward O. Wilson and Niles Eldredge identified post-industrial humans as the driving force behind the current and on-going mass extinction (Braje, 2013).

The human arrival was a “key component” in the extinction of the megafauna during the late Quaternary. In North America, approximately 34 genera (72%) of large mammals went extinct between 13,000 and 10,500 years ago, including mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, horses, tapirs, camels, bears, saber-tooth cats, and a variety of other animals. South America lost an even larger number and percentage, with 50 megafauna genera (83%) becoming extinct at about the same time.

 

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Other extinctions on island ecosystems around the world are result from direct human hunting, anthropogenic burning and landscape clearing, and the translocation of new plants and animals. One of the most famous and well-documented of these extinctions come from Madagascar. Pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and large lemurs went extinct due to human hunting or habitat disturbance. A very interesting study by Burney et al. (2003) tracked the decline of coprophilous Sporormiella fungus spores in sediments due to reduced megafaunal densities after the human arrival on the island.  Another well documented case is the Moa extinction in New Zealand. Recent radiocarbon dating and population modeling suggests that their disappearance occurred within 100 years of first human arrival. A large number of  landbirds across Oceania suffered a similar fate beginning about 3500 years ago.

The anthropogenic effects increasingly took precedence over natural climate change as the driving forces behind plant and animal extinctions with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals.

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). Credit: Brian Gratwicke. From Wikimedia Commons

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). Credit: Brian Gratwicke. From Wikimedia Commons

Amphibians offer an important signal to the health of biodiversity; when they are stressed and struggling, biodiversity may be under pressure.   Today, they are the world’s most endangered class of animal, while corals have had a dramatic increase in risk of extinction in recent years. Some biologist predict that the sixth extinction  may result in a 50% loss of the plants and animals on our planet by AD 2100, which would cause not only the collapse of ecosystems but also the loss of food economies, and medicinal resources.

The acceleration of extinctions over the past 50,000 years, in which humans have played an increasingly important role, has left a number of hard questions about how the Anthropocene should be defined and whether or not extinctions should contribute to this definition (Erlandson, 2013)

 

References:

T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013)

A.D. Barnosky, N. Matzke, S. Tomiya, G.O.U. Wogan, B. Swartz, T.B. Quental, C. Marshall, J.L. McGuire, E.L. Lindsey, K.C. Maguire, B. Mersey, E.A. Ferrer, Has the earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?, Nature, 471 (2011), pp. 51–57.

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