Major mass extinctions begin

Artwork depicting the asteroid impact that may have wiped out the dinosaurs

Following the "explosion" of life during the Cambrian geological time period, the fossil record suggests that life has become increasingly diverse through time. However, this general trend is punctuated by periods of time when large numbers of organisms became extinct. The largest five of these events are called major mass extinctions. Climate change, volcanoes and asteroid impacts have all been suggested as causes of these events. The event that wiped out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago is one of the "big five" and experts now favour the theory that it was one or more asteroid impacts that killed off these famous creatures and many other organisms.

The first known major mass extinction, the Ordovician-Silurian event, happened about 450-440 million years ago.

Image: Artwork depicting the asteroid impact that may have wiped out the dinosaurs (credit: Mark Garlick/SPL)

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Major mass extinctions begin

An extinction event (also known as a mass extinction or biotic crisis) is a widespread and rapid decrease in the amount of life on earth. Such an event is identified by a sharp change in the diversity and abundance of macroscopic life. It occurs when the rate of extinction increases with respect to the rate of speciation. Because the majority of diversity and biomass on Earth is microbial, and thus difficult to measure, recorded extinction events affect the easily observed, biologically complex component of the biosphere rather than the total diversity and abundance of life.

Over 98% of documented species are now extinct, but extinction occurs at an uneven rate. Based on the fossil record, the background rate of extinctions on Earth is about two to five taxonomic families of marine invertebrates and vertebrates every million years. Marine fossils are mostly used to measure extinction rates because of their superior fossil record and stratigraphic range compared to land organisms.

Since life began on Earth, several major mass extinctions have significantly exceeded the background extinction rate. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, which occurred approximately 66 million years ago (Ma), was a large-scale mass extinction of animal and plant species in a geologically short period of time. In the past 540 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died. Mass extinctions seem to be a Phanerozoic phenomenon, with extinction rates low before large complex organisms arose.

Estimates of the number of major mass extinctions in the last 540 million years range from as few as five to more than twenty. These differences stem from the threshold chosen for describing an extinction event as "major", and the data chosen to measure past diversity.

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