Permian–Triassic Extinction Event - Extinction Patterns - Possible Explanations of These Patterns

Possible Explanations of These Patterns

The most vulnerable marine organisms were those that produced calcareous hard parts (i.e., from calcium carbonate) and had low metabolic rates and weak respiratory systems—notably calcareous sponges, rugose and tabulate corals, calciate brachiopods, bryozoans, and echinoderms; about 81% of such genera became extinct. Close relatives without calcareous hard parts suffered only minor losses, for example sea anemones, from which modern corals evolved. Animals with high metabolic rates, well-developed respiratory systems, and non-calcareous hard parts had negligible losses—except for conodonts, in which 33% of genera died out.

This pattern is consistent with what is known about the effects of hypoxia, a shortage but not a total absence of oxygen. However, hypoxia cannot have been the only killing mechanism for marine organisms. Nearly all of the continental shelf waters would have had to become severely hypoxic to account for the magnitude of the extinction, but such a catastrophe would make it difficult to explain the very selective pattern of the extinction. Models of the Late Permian and Early Triassic atmospheres show a significant but protracted decline in atmospheric oxygen levels, with no acceleration near the P–Tr boundary. Minimum atmospheric oxygen levels in the Early Triassic are never less than present day levels—the decline in oxygen levels does not match the temporal pattern of the extinction.

The observed pattern of marine extinctions is also consistent with hypercapnia (excessive levels of carbon dioxide). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is actively toxic at above-normal concentrations, as it reduces the ability of respiratory pigments to oxygenate tissues, and makes body fluids more acidic, thereby hampering the production of carbonate hard parts like shells. At high concentrations, carbon dioxide causes narcosis (intoxication). In addition to these direct effects, CO2 reduces the concentration of carbonates in water by "crowding them out", which further increases the difficulty of producing carbonate hard parts.

Marine organisms are more sensitive to changes in CO2 levels than are terrestrial organisms for a variety of reasons. CO2 is 28 times more soluble in water than is oxygen. Marine animals normally function with lower concentrations of CO2 in their bodies than land animals, as the removal of CO2 in air-breathing animals is impeded by the need for the gas to pass through the respiratory systems membranes (lungs, tracheae, and the like). In marine organisms, relatively modest but sustained increases in CO2 concentrations hamper the synthesis of proteins, reduce fertilization rates, and produce deformities in calcareous hard parts. In addition, an increase in CO2 concentration leads to ocean acidification, consistent with the preferential extinction of heavily calcified taxa and signals in the rock record that suggest a more acidic ocean.

It is difficult to analyze extinction and survival rates of land organisms in detail, because there are few terrestrial fossil beds that span across the Permian-Triassic boundary. Triassic insects are very different from those of the Permian, but there is a gap in the insect fossil record spanning approximately 15M years from the late Permian to early Triassic. The best known record of vertebrate changes across the Permian-Triassic boundary occurs in the Karoo Supergroup of South Africa, but statistical analyses have so far not produced clear conclusions. However, analysis of the fossil river deposits of the floodplains indicate a shift from meandering to braided river patterns, indicating an abrupt drying of the climate. The climate change may have taken as little as 100,000 years, prompting the extinction of the unique Glossopteris flora and its herbivores, followed by the carnivorous guild.

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