Extinction: End‐Permian Mass Extinction


The end‐Permian mass extinction (252.3 Ma) was an abrupt and severe loss of diversity on land and in the oceans, the largest extinction of the Phanerozoic. Recent palaeontological, geochemical and modelling studies link the extinction with eruption of the Siberian Traps flood basalts, which would have caused global warming, ocean acidification and shallow‐marine anoxia. On land, global warming and aridification were mostly responsible for the vertebrate and plant extinction. Although almost no marine group emerged unscathed, selectivity favoured more active animals, whereas sessile and heavily calcified taxa such as corals and reef‐building sponges suffered heavily. The recovery interval was unusually long, likely because of continuing stress, and the extinction resulted in permanent shifts in marine ecosystem composition and structure, giving rise to the mollusc‐rich communities that still dominate today.

Key Concepts:

  • The end‐Permian mass extinction was a severe crisis for nearly every plant and animal group, on land and in the oceans.

  • The extinction was abrupt, apparently synchronous on land and in the sea, with the majority of taxonomic losses occurring over a few tens of thousands of years, approximately 252.3 Ma.

  • In the marine realm, more actively motile animal groups fared relatively better during the extinction.

  • Although low‐oxygen waters were widespread and contributed to the marine extinction, the primary cause most likely was global warming and ocean acidification from CO2 released by Siberia Traps flood basalt volcanism.

  • The terrestrial extinction was also caused by global warming and, among plants, the resulting dry conditions.

  • It took an unusually long time (5–7 million years) for most marine and terrestrial ecosystems to recover from the extinction, likely because of continuing intermittent stress.

  • The extinction triggered permanent changes in the composition and structure of marine ecosystems, giving rise to mollusc‐dominated communities that remain dominant today.

Keywords: Permian; Triassic; extinction; ocean acidification; climate change; reefs; evolution

Figure 1.

Palaeogeographic map showing the location of regions with marine and terrestrial Permian–Triassic boundary sections. Permian oceans and the location of key present‐day areas are labelled. The location of symbols indicates the presence of boundary sections in a region; not all boundary sections are shown.

Figure 2.

Biological and environmental events around the Permian–Triassic boundary. The timescale shows the intervals of the Middle Permian to Middle Triassic geological timescale, including the substages of the Early Triassic (Griesbachian to Spathian). Diversity of benthic (bottom dwelling) and swimming marine invertebrates is taken from raw genus counts in the Paleobiology Database and is shown at the stage level; extinction is calculated from sampling‐standardised data. The carbon isotope curve is based on measurements of δ13C from carbonates and indicates perturbations to the global carbon cycle. The timing of key events – flood basalt eruptions, radiolarian chert deposition, metazoan reef formation and microbialite formation – is indicated by solid lines, with the width corresponding qualitatively to the global importance of the event. The precise duration of flood basalt eruption is uncertain.

Figure 3.

Change between Permian and Mesozoic ecosystems from Erwin in 1996. The structure of marine life was changed dramatically after the mass extinction. In the Middle Permian (left), the seas contained mostly immobile animals, with some fish and a few trilobites. But by the Mesozoic Era (right), the ocean resembled modern‐day seas, with mobile bivalves, gastropods, swimming fish and cephalopods.



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Further Reading

Erwin DH (2006) Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

Payne JL and Clapham ME (2012) End‐Permian mass extinction in the oceans: an ancient analog for the twenty‐first century? Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences 40: 89–111.

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Clapham, Matthew E(Jan 2013) Extinction: End‐Permian Mass Extinction. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001654.pub3]