The Five Mass Extinctions

Related Posts

This table shows the names and dates for the five mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The fossil record of the mass extinctions was the basis for defining periods of geological history, so they typically occur at the transition point between geological periods. The transition in fossils from one period to another reflects the dramatic loss of species and the gradual origin of new species. These transitions can be seen in the rock strata. 

The Ordovician-Silurian extinction event is the first recorded mass extinction and the second largest. During this period, about 85 percent of marine species (few species lived outside the oceans) became extinct. The main hypothesis for its cause is a period of glaciation and then warming. The extinction event actually consists of two extinction events separated by about 1 million years. The first event was caused by cooling, and the second event was due to the subsequent warming. The climate changes affected temperatures and sea levels. Some researchers have suggested that a gamma-ray burst, caused by a nearby supernova, was a possible cause of the Ordovician-Silurian extinction. The gamma-ray burst would have stripped away the Earth’s protective ozone layer, allowing intense ultraviolet radiation from the sun to reach the surface of the earth—and may account for climate changes observed at the time. The hypothesis is very speculative, and extraterrestrial influences on Earth’s history are an active line of research. Recovery of biodiversity after the mass extinction took from 5 to 20 million years, depending on the location.

The late Devonian extinction may have occurred over a relatively long period of time. It appears to have mostly affected marine species and not so much the plants or animals inhabiting terrestrial habitats. The causes of this extinction are poorly understood.

The end-Permian extinction was the largest in the history of life. Indeed, an argument could be made that Earth became nearly devoid of life during this extinction event. Estimates are that 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all terrestrial species were lost. It was at this time, for example, that the trilobites, a group that survived the Ordovician–Silurian extinction, became extinct. The causes for this mass extinction are not clear, but the leading suspect is extended and widespread volcanic activity that led to a runaway global-warming event. The oceans became largely anoxic, suffocating marine life. Terrestrial tetrapod diversity took 30 million years to recover after the end-Permian extinction. The Permian extinction dramatically altered Earth’s biodiversity makeup and the course of evolution.

The causes of the Triassic–Jurassic extinction event are not clear, and researchers argue hypotheses including climate change, asteroid impact, and volcanic eruptions. The extinction event occurred just before the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea, although recent scholarship suggests that the extinctions may have occurred more gradually throughout the Triassic.

The causes of the end-Cretaceous extinction event are the ones that are best understood. It was during this extinction event about 65 million years ago that the majority of the dinosaurs, the dominant vertebrate group for millions of years, disappeared from the planet (with the exception of a theropod clade that gave rise to birds).

The cause of this extinction is now understood to be the result of a cataclysmic impact of a large meteorite, or asteroid, off the coast of what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. This hypothesis, proposed first in 1980, was a radical explanation based on a sharp spike in the levels of iridium (which enters our atmosphere from meteors at a fairly constant rate but is otherwise absent on Earth’s surface) in the rock stratum that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. This boundary marked the disappearance of the dinosaurs in fossils as well as many other taxa. The researchers who discovered the iridium spike interpreted it as a rapid influx of iridium from space to the atmosphere (in the form of a large asteroid) rather than a slowing in the deposition of sediments during that period. It was a radical explanation, but the report of an appropriately aged and sized impact crater in 1991 made the hypothesis more believable. Now an abundance of geological evidence supports the theory. Recovery times for biodiversity after the end-Cretaceous extinction are shorter, in geological time, than for the end-Permian extinction, on the order of 10 million years.

Another possibility, perhaps coincidental with the impact of the Yucatan asteroid, was extensive volcanism that began forming about 66 million years ago, about the same time as the Yucatan asteroid impact, at the end of the Cretaceous. The lava flows covered over 50 percent of what is now India. The release of volcanic gases, particularly sulphur dioxide, during the formation of the traps contributed to climate change, which may have induced the mass extinction.

Photo shows sedimentary rock with a distinct white band in the middle representing the K dash P g boundary. The rock below this layer, which has fine bands of dark and light gray, is distinct in appearance from the smoother, redder rock above.
In 1980, Luis and Walter Alvarez, Frank Asaro, and Helen Michels discovered, across the world, a spike in the concentration of iridium within the sedimentary layer at the K–Pg boundary. These researchers hypothesized that this iridium spike was caused by an asteroid impact that resulted in the K–Pg mass extinction. In the photo, the iridium layer is the light band. (credit: USGS)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments