Planet Earth

Too Little Oxygen And a Sulfur Overdose Drove Cambrian Extinction

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanJan 5, 2011 8:34 PM


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About 540 million years ago, things were looking pretty rosy for complex life on Earth. Conditions were favorable, and the diversity of multicellular organisms took off during the so-called Cambrian Explosion. Trilobites frolicked. Brachiopods abounded. And then, things went south. Between 490 million and 520 million years ago, a swift extinction event wiped out many of the Cambrian lifeforms. Geologists Benjamin Gill and Graham Shields-Zhou thinks they have found the trigger right in the midst of that era. According to their study in this week's Nature, the ocean's oxygen level plunged and the sulfur levels rose sharply 499 million years ago, killing off species that could not quickly adapt. That included some, but not all, of the trilobites that ruled the seas of the time.

Gill’s team decided to look at a specific subset of Cambrian extinctions that began 499 million years ago and lasted for 2 million to 4 million years. Other researchers had proposed that low oxygen levels — a condition known as anoxia — could be involved. But no one had marshaled enough evidence to prove that. [Science News]

The key to showing it in this case is in the chemical compositions of the samples the team collected, which hold clues to the ocean conditions of the time.

Gill and his colleagues took samples of 500-million-year-old rock from six locations around the world and measured the amounts of various isotopes of carbon and sulphur. Both were significantly different from the norm, suggesting that enormous amounts of carbon and sulphur were being buried. In modern oceans, this only occurs in low-oxygen waters like the Black Sea. [New Scientist]

The next question is, what drove down the oxygen levels so quickly? To that, Gill doesn't have an answer. But such cyclical dramatic changes driving extinction is the rule, not the exception—there were several events during the latter Cambrian when many species were wiped out, and anoxia could have been at play in some of those, too. Related Content: DISCOVER: Just One Bite And Life Took Off

80beats: Ancient Rocks Show Oxygen Was Abundant Long Before Complex Life Arose

80beats: How “Snowball Earth” Could Have Triggered the Rise of Life

80beats: One of the Earth’s Earliest Animals Left Behind “Chemical Fossils”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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