If you are curious about Earth's periodic mass extinction events such as the sudden demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, you might consider crashing asteroids and sky-darkening super volcanoes as culprits.
But a new study, published June 15, 2008, in the journal Nature, suggests that it is the ocean, and in particular the epic ebbs and flows of sea level and sediment over the course of geologic time, that is the primary cause of the world's periodic mass extinctions over the past 500 million years.
"The expansions and contractions of those environments have pretty profound effects on life on Earth," says Shanan Peters, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of geology and geophysics and the author of the new Nature report. In short, according to Peters, changes in ocean environments related to sea level exert a driving influence on rates of extinction, which animals and plants survive or vanish, and generally determine the composition of life in the oceans.
Since the advent of life on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, scientists think there may have been as many as 23 mass extinction events, many involving simple forms of life such as single-celled microorganisms. Over the past 540 million years, there have been five well-documented mass extinctions, primarily of marine plants and animals, with as many as 75-95 percent of species lost. For the most part, scientists have been unable to pin down the causes of such dramatic events. In the case of the demise of the dinosaurs, scientists have a smoking gun, an impact crater that suggests dinosaurs were wiped out as the result of a large asteroid crashing into the planet. But the causes of other mass extinction events have been murky, at best.
"No matter what the ultimate driving extinction mechanisms might be at any one time, Professor Peters brings the repeated and resultant extinction on oceanic shelves front and forward where it belongs," sa
|Contact: Diane Banegas|
National Science Foundation