Extinction: End‐Triassic Mass Extinction


One of the five greatest mass extinction events in Earth's history occurred at the end of the Triassic, c. 200 million years ago. This event ultimately eliminated conodonts and nearly annihilated corals, sphinctozoan sponges and ammonoids. Other strongly affected marine taxa include brachiopods, bivalves, gastropods and foraminifers. On the land, there is evidence for a temporal disturbance of plant communities but only few plant taxa finally disappeared. Terrestrial vertebrates also suffered but timing and extent of this extinction remains equivocal. The cause of the end‐Triassic mass extinction was probably linked to the contemporary activity of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, which heralded the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea. Possible kill mechanisms associated with magmatic activity include sea‐level changes, marina anoxia, climatic changes, release of toxic compounds and acidification of seawater. Remarkably, long‐term effects on marine biota were rather different between ecological groups: a nearly instantaneous recovery of level‐bottom communities is contrasted by the virtual absence of reef systems for nearly 10 million years after the extinction event.

Key Concepts:

  • Nearly half of all marine genera and a smaller but still significant proportion of terrestrial taxa went extinct at the end of the Triassic period, c.200 million years ago.

  • The end‐Triassic mass extinction took place during a geologically short time interval, which coincided with the onset of massive magmatic extrusions along fracture zones of the disassembling supercontinent Pangaea.

  • A cause‐and‐effect relationship between magmatic activity and mass extinction is indicated by the accordance of predicted extinction patterns and observed data from the fossil record.

  • Ocean acidification as a kill mechanism in marine ecosystems is confirmed by preferential extinction of taxa with thick aragonitic skeletons.

  • The end‐Triassic mass extinction event provides a test‐case for studying evolutionary responses to major environmental disturbances on the global scale and over geological time.

  • Although there are differences in emission rates, the massive magmatic CO2 release at the end of the Triassic is quantitatively similar to a potential release by complete combustion of the global fossil fuel reserves.

  • A provisional prediction from the data of the fossil record is that in the marine realm level‐bottom communities are able to recover much more quickly from the effects of excess CO2 than reef systems.

Keywords: mass extinction; Triassic; Jurassic; volcanism; reefs; level‐bottom communities; climatic change; ocean acidification

Figure 1.

Global boundary stratotype section and point (GSSP) for the base of the Jurassic, Kuhjoch section (Karwendel Mountains, Austria), illustrating the abrupt interruption of carbonate sedimentation on top of the late Triassic Kössen Formation. Note that strata are overturned, that is, Late Triassic limestones are above the claystones of the Triassic–Jurassic transition. The first occurrence of Psiloceras spelae and thus the base of the Jurassic is stratigraphically c. 6 m above the top of the Kössen Formation close to the lower limit of the photograph, notably postdating the extinction event. K. Kment (Bad Tölz) for scale. Photo by the author.

Figure 2.

Holotype of Psiloceras spelae tirolicum (Hillebrandt and Krystyn, ), the index fossil for the base of the Jurassic. Scale bar represents 1 cm. Photo courtesy of A. von Hillebrandt, Berlin.

Figure 3.

Triassic–Jurassic boundary sections from Europe, North America and South America, showing sedimentology, onset of negative δ13C excursion, and biostratigraphically important ammonoid occurrences (Choristoceras and Psiloceras). Note synchronous interruption of carbonate sedimentation, indicated by stippled line. Reproduced from Hautmann et al. () by permission of Schweizerbart'sche Varlagsbuchhandlung.

Figure 4.

Extinction of genera in taxa with different skeletal physiology. (a) Hypercalcifying taxa with aragonitic and/or high‐Mg calcitic skeletal mineralogy and little physiological control of biomineralisation. (b) Extinction in groups with variance in skeletal material, demonstrating increasing extinction risk from noncalcareous skeletons to low‐Mg calcitic, high‐Mg calcitic and aragonitic skeletal material. (c) Extinction of taxa with noncalcareous skeletons. Error bars indicate 95% binomial confidence intervals. Reproduced with slight modifications from Hautmann et al. () by permission of Schweizerbart'sche Varlagsbuchhandlung.

Figure 5.

Dendroid scleractinian corals (Retiophyllia sp.) in Rhaetian reef limestone (Parvadeh, Lut Desert, east‐central Iran). Photo by the author.



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Further Reading

Greene SE, Martindale RC, Ritterbush KA et al. (2012) Recognising ocean acidification in deep time: an evaluation of the evidence for acidification across the Triassic‐Jurassic boundary. Earth Science Reviews 113: 72–93.

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Veron JEN (2008) Mass extinctions and ocean acidification: biological constraints on geological dilemmas. Coral Reefs 27(3): 459–472.

Wignall P (2005) The link between large igneous province eruptions and mass extinctions. Elements 1(5): 293–297.

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Hautmann, Michael(Aug 2012) Extinction: End‐Triassic Mass Extinction. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001655.pub3]