New Study Links CO2 to Paleozoic Extinctions
September 1, 2007 11:23 AM
A new study by paleoecologist Margaret Fraiser at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, offers an interesting new theory behind the cause of the Earth's largest extinction: copious carbon-dioxide
When most people hear the phrase "the earth's largest extinction", they think dinosaurs.
knows better. As a paleoecologist, she knows that the Earth's largest mass extinction of life occurred at the end of the
at the end of the Paleozoic Era; 252 million years before the first T-Rex ever walked the earth. The extinction destroyed the
large land amphibians
' dominance of the land, and paved the way for dinosaurs to emerge as the dominant land species.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Margaret Frasier is studying this extinction avidly, looking for possible details to further our understandings of what might have caused this landmark event.
Her recent conclusions, published in an Elsevier journal
(PDF) and detailed in a
recent press release
titled "When Bivalves Ruled the World," describe an Earth with run-away carbon dioxide levels. She concludes that the Permian-Triassic mass-extinction was caused by toxic, oxygen-less oceans created by too much atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
The Permian-Triassic extinction event wiped out nearly 70 percent of species on land and 95 percent of sea species.
“Estimates of the CO2 in the atmosphere then were between six and 10 times greater than they are today,” Frasier states. The largest continuous volcanic eruption on Earth – known as the “Siberian Traps” – had been pumping out CO2 for about a million years prior to the Permian-Triassic mass extinction.
Her hypothesis is that high CO2 levels at the close of the Permian Period caused global warming, greatly increasing global temperatures. With no cold water at the poles, ocean circulation slowed, and the oceans were unable to mix with the little oxygen left in the air.
She cites a variety of evidence of high CO2 and low ocean oxygen levels in this fossil record. One piece of evidence is darkened rock from underwater fossil strata of the time. Darkening in ocean rock of this nature indicates a low amount of oxygen at the time of formation.
Frasier also collected evidence to support her theory in the form of bivalve fossils. The only survivors of the extinction were bivalve mollusks and gastropods -- snails. Only shallow water, tiny, small-shelled varieties with high metabolisms and a flat shape, which allowed them to spread out while feeding to extract more oxygen, survived. Deeper water varieties, where there was less oxygen, and larger shelled varieties, which needed more oxygen, became extinct, disappearing from the fossil record.
A final piece of evidence cited is the disappearance of the coral reefs. Coral reefs die if their environment lacks sufficient oxygen.
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