Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mass extinctions, basalt flows, and us

Verbatim from my Pa (Dr. John Van Couvering, geologist and all-around Scientist), who wrote this up for a his local neighborhood newsletter in upstate New York

Most of us have heard of the great extinction that wiped the dinosaurs off the face of the earth.  Of course this didn’t really happen, because birds – aha! -- are dinosaurs. But few may be aware that the human presence on the planet follows, not one, but four narrow escapes from extinction, going all the way back before dinosaurs even evolved. We are rather like Fearless Fosdick (Li’l Abner’s comic hero) who pops up unscathed, with the lid on his head, from his hiding place in a trash can that has been riddled to shreds by the mob’s tommy guns. The crooks are gobsmacked. “Fosdick! We shot ya fulla holes!” “Took a bit of dodging,” he jauntily replies.

What did we dodge? In fact, those “extinction events” are deadly beyond belief: moments in planetary history when nearly everything on land dies, as well a great deal of marine life. In the last of these, 65 million years ago, four entire orders of dinosaurs were exterminated, plus all but the airborne varieties of a fifth order, as well as two out of three orders of coral and entire groups of other marine life. To put the extinction of an order in perspective, extinguishing the modern Carnivora would require that every single living animal in that order -- every last cat, lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, puma, jaguar, hyaena, aardvark, civet, dog, wolf, fox, bear, panda, seal, sea lion, walrus, weasel, mink, skunk, badger, wolverine, otter, raccoon, kinkajou, coati mundi and meerkat – would have to perish. If even one lonely pair of any of these species survived to reproduce, so would the Order Carnivora. The magnitude of disaster that can totally erase not one but a dozen orders is difficult to comprehend.

Huge meteorite impacts have been found to coincide with some major extinction events, but they may have been just the last straw. For one thing, giant impacts are turning out to be surprisingly common, with little or no extinction effect. While the asteroid that punched into Yucatan may have finished off Tyrannosaurus and the tetracorals, they were apparently sick and dying already. A few million years later, the equally large flying rock that blew a 57-mile wide hole into the bedrock under what is now Delaware and Maryland had no effect on earthly life whatever. Not only that, no impact has been found to coincide with the worst extinction of all, the Permo-Triassic event 250 million years ago, that killed off all but one species of non-amphibian land animals – which species, of course, is our ancestor. The real cause of extinction events appears to be flood basalts – extraordinary volcanic episides that go on for a million years as flow after flow of lava wells from cracks in the continent to build up country-sized mounds called “traps”. It is probable, but not yet proven, that the gases emitted from the thousand of cubic kilometers of flood basalts create toxic pollution of land and sea. The Deccan Traps of central India mark the end of the dinosaurs, while the traps that underlie the steppes of Siberia are the same age as the great Permo-Triassic extinction.

Given the odds, it is to be expected that mass extinctions have chancy, even unfair consequences. After the Permo-Triassic massacre our ancestral line succesively developed into anapsids (turtles), synapsids (mammals) and diapsids (everything else). Each of these is a higher stage of evolution, with a basic physiology better adapted to life on land. By some freak chance, a single lowly synapsid got through the 190-my extinction at the end of theTriassic, along with a variety of diapsids.on their way to crocodiles, lizards, and all kinds of dinosaurs. This primitive synapsid line, which seems to have favored bugs and fruit, quietly developed warm-blooded circulation, milk glands and eventually a uterus. And when the grand house of the dinosaurs came crashing down, guess who was hiding under the ruins?

Our final lucky break came around 48 million years ago, when a solitary species of primitive primate got stranded on the (then) island of Africa, never to see its many relatives in North America and Asia again. Bingo, Columbia River basalts. This was not one of the great extinction events, but it was enough to kill every primate in the world – except for that forgotten waif in Africa. Now, many lemurs and lorises and monkeys and apes later, here we are, self-importantly going on about our human-caused extinction event. If we knew how far we have yet to go, perhaps we just might give it up.


carl said...

Why ... that is.. what is the cause of the fissures and thus the basalt flows. Do you agree that we are in what is to be the eleventh mass extinction do to the CO2 levels.

Dianne Faucher said...

Some decades back I worked for your father in the Museum of Natural History, Dept. of Micropaleon-tology. He made our dept. one of the most intriguing, most companionable places I have ever had the good fortune to work.
  I'm currently reading a novel set in the Museum and thought of him. The above article sounds like him, a combination of scientific scholarship and high good humor. The next time you see your father, please tell him that Dianne Faucher was thinking of him.