The Permian Extinction—When Life Nearly Came to an End

The Permian Extinction—When Life Nearly Came to an End

This mass extinction almost ended life on Earth as we know it.


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Biology, Ecology, Earth Science, Geology, Geography

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This asset was created based on the National Geographic Magazine article that shares the same title. Written by Hillel J. Hoffman, the article offers insights into the author’s interactions with paleontologists and scientists while exploring the Black Triangle and Karoo regions. The primary goal is to uncover a deeper understanding of the Permian extinction and its subsequent consequences.

About 250 million years ago, life almost ended on Earth. About 90 percent of the planet's animal species died out. Nearly all the trees disappeared. This catastrophe is known as the Permian extinction. Permian is the name for this prehistoric period.

What Caused The Worst Mass Extinction In History?

What happened? I was on the trail to find out. I met with scientists who are working to solve the mystery. "You could say we're working on the greatest murder mystery of all time," said Cindy Looy. She is a scientist who studies ancient life. She believes the Permian extinction was caused by volcanic gases. These gases wiped out most of Earth's plants and animals. I traveled to South Africa to find out more. I met Roger Smith, a paleontologist. We drove out to an area of open land. If we had been here before the Permian extinction, the landscape would have been full of animals. The most common were synapsids. They looked like a cross between a dog and a lizard. Smith pointed to a cliff. He explained that the fossils here date from the end of the Permian period. They tell a story. The remains of synapsids are common in the lower levels. They grew fewer and then disappeared the higher I looked. Something wiped out the synapsids about 250 million years ago.

Tree Deaths Tell A Tale

Plants were also struck down by the extinction. I visited fossil beds in the mountains of Italy to do more research. I joined the team led by Henk Visscher. He is a professor of Earth Sciences. We visited fossil beds from the Permian period. Researchers showed me startling evidence of the extinction. Fossils lower in the fossil bed come from before the extinction. They contain a lot of pollen from trees. Then the pollen disappears. Instead, there are fossilized fungi. Cindy Looy explained that this fungus may have fed on dead trees. Visscher's team found this fossilized fungi all around the world. Their conclusion: Nearly all the world's trees died suddenly.

Many Clues To Point To

Science has found clear proof of the Permian extinction. The bigger question is what caused it. There are several ideas. Gregory Retallack is a geologist. His research suggests an asteroid smashed into the Earth about that time. A team of researchers in Australia recently found a crater from that period. It was 120 kilometers (75 miles) wide. Such a big impact would have sent huge clouds of dust into the air. They would have blocked out the sun. The Earth would have gotten cooler. This sudden change would have killed plants, causing animals to starve. Another leading suspect is volcanic activity. Scientists have found proof of huge eruptions during the Permian period. Volcanic gases must have poured into the skies. Particles would have blocked the sun and cooled the planet. Plants and animals would have died around the world.

Global Disasters

Every scientist I met seemed close to solving the mystery. Doug Erwin warned me, though. Erwin is a scientist at the Smithsonian Museum. He told me "the truth is sometimes untidy." He thinks it's possible that there may have been more than one cause to the Permian extinction. Maybe several global disasters happened at once. Now humanity is causing a new mass extinction. We are wiping out countless species. I wonder if life could bounce back. Based on what I learned, I think it can. If life can survive the Permian extinction, it can survive anything.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Hillel J. Hoffman
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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