Ancient Mass Extinction Event May Not Be So Strange After All

Planet Earth Extinction Event Abstract

Revealed: The Secrets our Clients Used to Earn $3 Billion

Contrary to the long-held perception that the Late Ordovician mass extinction occasion (LOME), which occurred 443 million years in the past and eradicated about 85% of all species, was primarily attributable to a short-lived ice age, a brand new research means that international warming additionally performed a major function.

The Late Ordovician mass extinction occasion (LOME) has lengthy been seen as odd in comparison with different mass extinction occasions in Earth’s historical past. Contrary to just about all different main extinction phases recognized from the fossil file it seems to be instigated by an ice age. A brand new research, nevertheless, reveals that the LOME was in all probability ruled by mechanisms like these seen throughout most different occasions – together with international warming.

Textbooks written over the last 50 years will inform you that 443 million years in the past upwards of 85% of all species disappeared towards the end of the Ordovician Period because of a short-lived ice age in what is known as the oldest and probably second most severe mass extinction event in all of Earth’s history. However, a new study just published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution by researchers of the universities of Copenhagen, Ghent, and California-Berkeley questions this long-standing view because – as the study points out – the massive loss of biodiversity started millions of years earlier than hitherto believed during a warming phase that preceded the well-known glacially associated extinction pulses.

The LOME has long been a bit of a conundrum. Strangely two mass extinction pulses seem associated with the waxing and waning of major ice sheets. This is unique as all other extinction events of similar scale later in the fossil record appear to be associated with global warming – a scenario which is also like that observed during the current biodiversity loss. The new study points out that new, temporally better-resolved fossil biodiversity data through the LOME-event show the extinctions to occur in at least three pules during an up to nine million yearlong interval. This fundamentally changes the Late Ordovician extinction scenario and thus likely also the drivers behind it.

Did volcanoes instigate the Ordovician biodiversity loss?

Within the Earth Sciences community, many hypotheses circulate as to what drove the event. These disagreements are also reflected within the author group of the paper. However, the authors do agree that the classic hypothesis now is outdated and in need of revision. One revised scenario, for instance, suggests the LOME to be associated with some of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded in Earth’s history. All evidence points to a much more complex climate history at play during the LOME than previously recognized. And, that extinction triggers could well have been global warming induced by greenhouse gas overloading through volcanic outgassing, as well as deoxygenation of the oceans. Whereas some of this had already been explored for the classic ice age interval, this has not been studied in any detail during this new first wave of the LOME extinctions.

Analogs to the Anthropocene?

Today anthropogenic activities have led to a major loss of biodiversity through first and foremost CO2 overloading of the atmosphere, causing global warming and acidification of global oceans, and habitat loss through overexploitation of natural resources.

The current biodiversity loss occurs at concerning speeds, likely far outpacing most major extinction events known from the fossil record. So, although perhaps still not at the scale of past mass extinctions, the current rates of extinctions are certainly alarming. The new study highlights these differences in extinction rates, arguing that the LOME exhibits some of the same extinction drivers as seen today albeit naturally induced and thus apparently operating at slower temporal scales than the current human-induced biodiversity crisis. However, fossil biodiversity data through extinction events becomes increasingly better temporally resolved and with that, some concerning new evidence is emerging.

Are we currently facing a prolonged biodiversity crisis?

The better-resolved data shows that even though these naturally induced extinctions known from the fossil record may be nested in prolonged million-year phases of biodiversity decline, they are punctuated by sudden, catastrophic extinction pulses of just a few millennia in duration. This new evidence from the fossil record may be an indication that once biodiversity loss accelerates, ecosystems fall out of balance, causing much greater and irreversible disruption. This has a concerning resemblance to what is seen during the past few centuries – not least if this means that we are facing a prolonged, irreversible loss of biodiversity similar to what has occurred previously in Earth’s history.

Reference: “Was the Late Ordovician mass extinction truly exceptional?” by Christian M.Ø. Rasmussen, Thijs R.A. Vandenbroucke, David Nogues-Bravo and Seth Finnegan, 12 May 2023, Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2023.04.009