Extinction: Late Devonian Mass Extinction


The Late Devonian mass extinction, which occurred 374.5 Ma, is one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions in Earth history. Suggested causes of the mass extinction include oceanic anoxia and global cooling. The severe loss of biodiversity that occurred during the crisis was global, affecting both marine and terrestrial ecosystems and animal and plant communities. Both low‐temperature stresses due to global cooling and oxygen deprivation due to anoxia have been implicated as kill mechanisms in the Late Devonian mass extinction, and it is possible that the severity of the mass extinction was due to both processes operating in concert. The ultimate trigger for these kill mechanisms is still under debate: oceanic anoxia may have been triggered by eutrophication and terrestrial anoxia by an atmospheric oxygen minimum during the Late Devonian. Postulated triggers of global cooling range from abrupt and catastrophic – the volcanic‐winter hypothesis versus the impact‐winter hypothesis – to long‐term and gradual carbon dioxide downdraw from the atmosphere due to biological and chemical weathering of terrestrial rocks.

Key Concepts:

  • Early lobe‐finned fishes and tetrapod (four‐limbed) vertebrates were severely impacted by the Late Devonian mass extinction.

  • A severe loss in biodiversity and a ‘floral crisis’ in land plants were triggered by the Late Devonian mass extinction.

  • The destruction of Devonian‐style reefs triggered a permanent change in global marine ecosystems.

  • Both low‐temperature stress (hypothermia) and oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) are implicated in the Late Devonian mass extinction.

  • Both catastrophic asteroidal impact and catastrophic mantle plume volcanism are debated as causes of the Late Devonian mass extinction.

  • The precise cause of the Late Devonian mass extinction remains unproved.

Keywords: mass extinction; global cooling; asteroid impact; mantle plume volcanism; oceanic anoxia; atmospheric carbon dioxide

Figure 1.

Temporal pattern of biotic diversity loss in the Late Devonian mass extinction. Five extinction pulses (numbered in right margin of figure) occurred during the latest Frasnian and earliest Famennian.

Figure 2.

Palaeogeographical reconstruction of Euramerica showing the location of three known Late Devonian impact sites (solid circles) and three additional impact sites that are poorly dated at present, but are probable Late Devonian impacts (open circles with central points). For a detailed discussion of Late Devonian impact events, see McGhee .



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Further Reading

Clack JA (2012) Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods, 2nd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Courtillot VE (1999) Evolutionary Catastrophes: The Science of Mass Extinction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Donovan SK (1989) Mass Extinctions: Processes and Evidence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hallam A and Wignall PB (1997) Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGhee GR Jr (1990) Catastrophes in the history of life. In: Allen KC and Briggs DEG (eds) Evolution and the Fossil Record, pp. 26–50. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Over DJ, Morrow JR and Wignall PB (2005) Understanding Late Devonian and Permian–Triassic Biotic and Climatic Events. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Sepkoski JJ Jr (1996) Patterns of Phanerozoic extinction: a perspective from global data bases. In: Walliser OH (ed.) Global Events and Event Stratigraphy, pp. 35–51. Berlin: Springer.

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McGhee, George R(Nov 2012) Extinction: Late Devonian Mass Extinction. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001653.pub3]