Virginia Tech researchers discover sixth mass extinction event
Virginia Tech researchers discovered new evidence suggesting that the first known mass extinction event on Earth was caused by a drop in oxygen levels about 550 million years ago.
This is the sixth and oldest known mass extinction event on the planet.
About 80 percent of life on earth disappeared at the height of the Ediacaran period, according to the study and LiveScience.com, when the earth was filled with slug-like organisms and ancestors of jellyfish.
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A study by Virginia Tech researchers suggests that the missing fossils of these life forms signify the event.
“Previous work, by ourselves and others, had shown changes in diversity in these older animal communities, known collectively as the Ediacaran Biota,” Virginia Tech postdoctoral researcher Scott Evans said Thursday. “To quantify these changes in diversity and test the hypothesized causes of this change, we compiled a database of all records of Ediacaran fossil occurrences around the world.”
Evans said the study took about a year to complete and consisted primarily of a literature review.
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But that literature, he said, built on decades of previous work to help understand early animals.
Until this study, scientists had accepted five mass extinctions on record.
The Ordovician-Silurian extinction was 440 million years ago; The Devonian extinction was 365 million years ago; The Permian-Triassic extinction was 250 million years ago; The Triassic-Jurassic extinction was 210 million years ago; and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction was 65 million years ago.
This discovery places it 110 million years before the first known extinction.
Of the 20% of life that survived, scientists discovered that they all had a large surface area, which helps animals survive.
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“I think the most important takeaway is that we now have a record going back 550 million years, which shows that animals respond to changing environmental conditions, often leading to major extinction events,” Evans said. “While the causes of current environmental change and animal responses may be different, the fact that such change in the past has been shown time and time again to lead to major extinction events is crucial in consider what actions we need to take to mitigate the course of our current human-driven climate change.”