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Mass Extinctions

Mass Extinctions

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: João Paulo Bresciani Neto on May 31, 2011
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CHAPTER
4
MASSEXTINCTIONS
Michel.Thisarticleproposedthatagiantcometorasteroidcollidedwithearth65millionyearsago,triggeringoneofthelargestmassextinctionsinthehistoryoflife.Thefactthattheextinctionkilledthedinosaursaddedtopopularinterest.Then,in1984,JackSepkoskiandIpublishedtheclaimthatthelastseveralpulsesofextinctionwereclocklikeintheirspacing,comingapproximatelyevery26millionyears.Thisledastronomerstoproposesolarsystemorgalacticexplanations,themostnotablebeingthetheorythatoursunhasasmallcompanionstar(dubbedNemesis)thatdisturbscometorbitsevery26millionyears,causingshowersofcometsonearth.Thiscombinationofproposalstouchedoffyetmorecontroversy.Thesescientificeventswouldhavesufficedtoraiseexcite-mentaboutmassextinction,butadditionalexplanationshavebeensuggested,includingthenotionthatdoomsdayscenarioshavenaturalappealinourculture.Thebigmassextinctionsweretrulydevastatingeventsand,ifcausedbycollisionswithcomets,instantaneousanddramatic.Couldithappenagain?Andifso,when?
It
hasalsobeensuggestedthatpopularfearsofglobalwarandnuclearwinterhavesensitizedallofustotalkofglobaldisaster.Ifthat'strue,globalwarmingandthegreenhouseeffectareprobablypartofthemix.
MASSEXTINCTIONS
Massextinctionisboxoffice,adarlingofthepopularpress,thesubjectofcoverstoriesandtelevisiondocumentaries,manybooks,evenarocksong.
Discover
magazinedevoteditsOctober1989issuetothetopic"ADecadeofScience:TheEightBigIdeasoftheEighties."Ideano.5,describedinanessaybyStephenJayGouldtided"AnAsteroidtoDiefor,"concernedextinction.Attheendof1989,theAs-sociatedPressdesignatedmassextinctiononeofthe"10TopSci~ntific.AdvancesofthePastDecade."Everybodyhasweighed
In,
fromthe
Economist
to
NationalGeographic.
Thereareseveralreasonsforthepopularexcitementaboutextinction.Anobviousone,andcertainlythemostimportant,isthecontroversialresearcharticlepublishedin1980by
L.
W.Alvarez,W.Alvarez,F.Asaro,andH.V.Whenapaleontologistisaskedhowmanymassextinctionstherehavebeen,theinvariableanswerisfive:oneeachintheOrdovician,Devonian,Permian,Triassic,andCretaceousperiods-eventsknownasthe
BigFive.
Whenaskedwhatwentoninbetween,heorsheusuallyrepliesthattherewas
 
EXTINCTION:BADGENESORBADLUCK?
acontinuous,lowlevelextinctioncalled"background"with,perhaps,afewpulsesabovebackgroundbutnotlargeenoughtobecalledmassextinctions.Figure4-1attemptstoshowthetimingofextinctionsofvaryingsize.Thelong,openarrowsaretheBigFive;theoneattheendofthePermian(245rnaBP),thebiggest.Theshorterarrowsindicatesmallerevents,withthearrowsvaryinginlengthroughlyaccordingtointensityofextinc-tion.Thisraisesseveralquestions.Howisextinctionmeasured?Areintervalsofhighextinctionsufficientlyshort-livedtomerittheword
event?
Aretherefundamentaldifferencesbetweenlargeandsmallextinctions-otherthansize-astheterminologyweuseimplies?Beforetacklingtheseques-tions,Iwillgiveabriefdescriptionofonebigmassextinc-tion.
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THE
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EXTINCTION
Thebest-documentedoftheBigFivecameattheendoftheCretaceous.ItisoftencalledtheK-T-referringtotheboundarybetweentheCretaceous(abbreviatedK,toavoidconfusionwiththeCarboniferousandCambrianperiods)andthenextyounger,orTertiary(T),period.BecauseitisthemostrecentoftheBigFive,itsrocksandfossilsarethebestpreserved.Also,sedimentsfromtheCretaceousarewidelydistributedbecauseitwasatimewhencontinentswerefloodedbyshallowseas,leavingagoodmarinerecordonthepresentlandsurface.Virtuallyallplantandanimalgroups-onlandandinthesea-lostspeciesandgeneraatorneartheendofCreta-
MASSEXTINCTIONS
MajorExtinctionevents
o
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FIGURE4-1.Geologic.timescaleshowingtheprincipalextinc-tioneventsofthePhanerozoic.Thearrowlengthsareroughlyproportionaltotheintensityofextinction.Thela~el~dev~ntsaretheBigFivemassextinctions.(AdaptedfromasimilardIagramconstructedbySepkoski,:1986.)
66
 
EXTINCTION:BADGENESORBADLUCK?MASSEXTINCTIONS
ceoustime.Marineanimalssufferedthetotalextinctionof38percentoftheirgenera;amonglandanimals,thehitwasslightlyhigher.Thesearebignumberswhenoneconsidersthatinorderforagenustodieout,allindividualsinallitsspeciesmustgo.Landplantsappeartohavedonealittlebetter,althoughtheirfossilrecordisnotgoodenoughforustobesure.Intheoceans,majorlossesofspeciesandgenerawereconcentratedamongmarinereptiles,bonyfishes,sponges,snails,clams,ammonites(mollusksdistantlyrelatedtosquids),seaurchins,andforaminifera(single-celledanimalsusuallyhavingahardskeleton).Butnogroupescaped.Mostnoteworthyarethelargegroups-familiesandorders-thatlostalltheirspecies.Marinereptiles(plesiosaurs,mosa-saurs,andichthyosaurs),ammonites,andseveralotheroncesuccessfulgroupsdiedouttotally.SomehadbeenindeclinewellbeforetheendoftheCretaceous;othersdiedabruptly.Onland,dinosaurswerethemostobviousvictims,butheavylossesweresustainedbyawidevarietyofotherrep-tiles,mammals,andamphibians.InwesternNorthAmerica,fullyone-thirdofallgeneraofmammalsdiedoutatorneartheendoftheCretaceous.Thereweresurvivors,ofcourse.Crocodiles,alligators,frogs,salamanders,turtles,andmammalsallsurvived-asgroups---despitetheextinctionofsomespecies.Inaway,listsofvictimsandsurvivorsaremisleading.Thestatementthatmammalssurvivedhidesthefactthattheysustainedheavylosses.Toomuchemphasisonthefatesofmajortaxonomicgroupshasledtooversimplificationinthesearchforcausesofmassextinction-posingfalseques-tionslike"Whatcouldkilldinosaursbutnotaffectmam-mals?"Moreimportant,thelistshidemoredramaticeffectsoftheextinction-hugedie-offsofafew,veryabundantspe-cies.Forexample,manyK-Tboundarydepositsshowasuddenshiftinlandvegetationrecordedbyadropinangi-ospermpollen(floweringplants)andajumpinfernspores.Thisisknownasthefernspike.Inafewmillimetersofthesedimentarysequence,fernsporecontentgoesfrom25per-centto99percent.Thischangeisreminiscentofsuddenshiftsofvegetationoftenseenafteraforestfiretoday-alushforestisreplacedbyanopportunisticfloradominatedbyferns.Followingthefernspike,floweringplantscamebackwithrelativelyfewspeciesmissing.Ifoneweretoconsideronlycountsofspeciesandgenera,thetraumaoftheeventwouldbeoverlooked.AndthiswasDigbyMcLaren'sargu-mentonthesignificanceofmasskillingsinthepast(seeChapter1).Anothermasskillingoccurredintheoceansamongnear-surfaceforaminifera("planktonicforams").Thesesmallanimalshadonlyafewspecies,buttheywerehugelyabun-dant,theirskeletonsoftendominatingsedimentarydepositsofthetime.AttheK-Tboundary,mostplanktonicforamswerekilledoffsocompletelythattheoverlyingsedimentsarestrikinglydifferentincolorandgeneralappearance.Far-therupintheTertiarysequence,theplanktonicforamscomeback,withseveralnewspeciesdescended,apparently,fromasinglesurvivingCretaceousspecies.Becausefewspecieswereinvolved,theplanktonicforamsdonotaddmuchtoglobalstatisticsoftheevent.Butinbiomassloss,theywereimportant.Unfortunately,thefossilrecordrarelyallowsustocountnumbersofindividualsdyingortomeasuretotalbiomass
68

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