Apr 05, 2014 I Tom Head

Did Ancient Microbes Cause Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction?

About 252 million years ago, climate change killed almost every living species on Earth. The survivors made up roughly 10% of the species that existed prior to this catastrophic event, which scientists refer to formally as the Permian-Triassic extinction and more informally as the Great Dying.

SciShow's Hank Green walks us through the five most recent mass extinctions. The recurring theme of climate change altering species' natural habitats, making them inhospitable, is impossible to miss:


What caused the dramatic changes to the climate leading up to the Great Dying? As Green points out, the standard explanation has been that volcanic activity is to blame. And given that we know considerable seismic shifts were happening around this time (Pangaea had formed less than 50 million years earlier and would be gone 75 million years later), it would be a remarkable coincidence if the Great Dying had nothing to do with volcanic activity.

But according to an international team of geophysicists working through MIT, it was the ancient methanosarcina that fed on the volcanic nickel deposits (and subsequently filled the air with methane gas) that destroyed the global ecosystem. And because their theory is pretty airtight—we know the volcanic nickel deposits were there, we know methanosarcina were there, we know methanosarcina fed on nickel, we know they produced methane, we know methane in proportional quantities would make the Earth pretty much uninhabitable—it's likely to become the prevailing theory.

And if it's true, we are following the methanosarcina's lead. Much like them, we are consuming abundant resources, releasing vast quantities of environmentally destructive waste in the process, and indirectly damaging ecosystems on a global scale. This is, it seems, a very old story.

Tom Head
Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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