Tag Archives: extinction events

Episode 240: The End of the Dinosaurs



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Here we go. It’s the big one, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event!

Further reading:

How Birds Survived the Asteroid Impact That Wiped Out the Dinosaurs

How an asteroid ended the age of dinosaurs

Extinction event that wiped out dinosaurs cleared way for frogs

How life blossomed after the dinosaurs died

66-million-year-old deathbed linked to dinosaur-killing meteor

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Here it is, the extinction event episode that everyone’s been waiting for, or at least that everyone knows about. It’s the one that killed off the dinosaurs and ushered in the age of mammals. It’s probably the one we know most about and it’s certainly the one we have the most paintings of, usually of a T. rex staring into the sky at an approaching comet.

In episode 227 we talked about the end-Permian extinction event, which took place about 250 million years ago. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, or end-Cretaceous, took place just over 66 million years ago, which means that for almost 200 million years there was more or less smooth sailing in the world. Dinosaurs evolved during that time, and I think we can all agree that dinosaurs are fascinating animals.

The largest terrestrial animals ever to live were dinosaurs, specifically the sauropods. Sauropods were just unimaginably huge. They were like walking buildings that ate plants, and even that doesn’t give a good idea of their size. Some sauropods had extremely long tails as well as very long necks, which increased their length. Right now the largest sauropod known was probably Argentinosaurus that might have grown as long as 118 feet, or 36 meters, but paleontologists keep finding bigger and bigger sauropods. Some sauropods had extremely long necks that they held up like a giraffe. The tallest was probably Barosaurus, estimated as being 72 feet tall, or 22 meters. And we won’t even get into estimates of how much these massive animals weighed. They make the biggest elephant that ever lived look like a toy elephant.

Sauropods ate plants, with the low-necked species eating low-growing plants and the high-necked species eating tree leaves, although even saying that much is controversial. There’s a lot we don’t know about sauropods in general, since most sauropod fossils are incomplete and many species are only known from one or a few bones. But we do know some surprising things about sauropods. We have a lot of sauropod tracks, which helps us understand how their feet looked and whether they had claws, but it also tells us that some species of sauropod traveled in herds. Paleontologists do generally agree that many sauropods migrated, since animals that big would soon exhaust all the food in one area if they didn’t.

Sauropods were extremely successful and lived all over the world. There were plenty of sauropods alive 66 ½ million years ago, and then…there were no sauropods alive ever again.

These days, there’s so much evidence that a massive asteroid killed off the dinosaurs that pretty much everyone agrees, but when the idea was first proposed in 1980, it was extremely controversial. When I was a kid I remember reading dinosaur books that still said the extinction of the dinosaurs was a mystery but that many scientists thought it was due to disease or volcanoes.

The asteroid strike hypothesis was proposed by the physicist Luis Alvarez and his son, Walter. They worked with a small team of other scientists, including two chemists, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, to investigate a strange anomaly in rock strata. Rocks dating to the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Paleogene period are separated by a thin layer of clay that’s visible throughout the world, or at least wherever the rocks remain and can be examined. It’s called the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, or K-Pg boundary, although in older books and websites it’s called the K-T boundary. It occurred just over 66 million years ago. The Alvarezes were curious about this layer, and during their investigations they found out that the clay is full of an element called iridium.

Iridium is a silvery-white metal chemically related to platinum, and it’s rare. At least, it’s rare on Earth. It’s a common component of asteroids, which was one of the main reasons why the Alvarezes came to their hypothesis that the K-Pg boundary was the result of a massive asteroid impact. Other scientists had made similar suggestions in the decade or so leading up to the Alvarezes’ theory, but the iridium discovery provided the proof everyone wanted.

Iridium wasn’t the only thing found in the K-Pg boundary layer, either. There were other platinum-group metals present in high concentrations—much higher than found on Earth, and in fact these elements are referred to as rare-earth metals for that reason. In some places, the K-Pg boundary contains grains of shocked quartz and microtektites. We’ll discuss those in a minute.

As we’ve discussed before in various episodes, the earth’s surface is always moving around. It’s slow to us, with continents moving around at the same dizzying speed that our fingernails grow, but over millions of years that adds up. Continents move around and crash into each other, forming new mountain ranges that then wear down to plains, and where continental plates pull apart or push together the crust can weaken and allow magma to erupt through as volcanoes. Ocean levels rise and fall. In other words, a crater made 66 million years ago might have disappeared as all this geologic activity goes on.

But then, we found the crater. The crater.

The Chicxulub crater is in Mexico, specifically the Yucatán Peninsula at the southern portion of the Gulf of Mexico. You can’t see it when you’re walking around because it’s buried under 2,000 feet of soil, or 600 meters, that has built up over the last 66 million years. Two geophysicists found it in the 1970s while surveying for petroleum, but it wasn’t until 1990 that they were able to verify that it was a crater. Asteroid impacts leave clues behind that the geophysicists recognized.

The first clue is shocked quartz. Quartz is a common crystalline mineral throughout the world, and it has a certain structure that’s familiar to geologists. In shocked quartz, that structure has been deformed by intense pressure, but not high temperature. It was first noticed after nuclear bomb tests, and after that scientists recognized it in meteor craters.

The second clue is little pieces of glass called tektites. They’re different from obsidian, which is a type of glass formed by volcanic activity. Tektites are usually shaped like droplets or little blobs, but sometimes they’re round. They’re only found around big impact sites and only for relatively recent meteor impacts, because they don’t last forever.

The Chicxulub crater is actually kind of old for its tektites to still be around, except for two things. First, the tiniest tektites, the microtektites, ended up in the K-Pg boundary layer, as I mentioned earlier. Second, we actually have a fossil site in North Dakota, in the middle of North America up near Canada, that seems to date to literally the day of the asteroid impact, and there are tektites all over the site, including clogging the gills of fish. The tektites match the chemical signatures of the Chicxulub crater so we know that’s where they came from.

Before we talk about the North Dakota fossil bed, let’s discuss what exactly happened on the day the asteroid hit the earth. Because we’ve found the asteroid’s crater, we know a lot about the asteroid itself. Most researchers estimate that it was about 6 miles across, or 10 km. It approached the earth at an angle, traveling about 12 km a second. That’s 7.5 miles per second. It hit the earth right on the coast, partly in the ocean, partly on land, forming a crater about 110 miles across, or 180 km, and 12 miles deep, or 19 km.

The asteroid smashed into the Earth so fast that it was completely buried in about the time it takes you to blink. There really wasn’t time for any dinosaurs to look up and wonder what that bright light was, because the time between the asteroid entering earth’s atmosphere and smashing into the earth was maybe five seconds.

The megatsunami resulting from the impact would have been unbelievably huge. Waves may have been a mile high, or over 1.5 km. The initial impact would have thrown water more than 7.5 miles into the air, or 12 km, and when that water fell back down it would have set up another megatsunami. Not only that, the impact actually shook the whole earth like a massive earthquake, which caused landslides all over the place and set up even more tsunamis. It’s like shaking a snowglobe to watch the fake snow swirl around and around, only instead of fake snow it was ocean.

At the same time, everything near the impact site was instantly on fire. It was on fire because the asteroid was traveling so fast that it was glowing white-hot with incandescent heat just from pushing against air molecules, and when it hit the Earth, all that heat had to go somewhere. Also, everything exploded. The water exploded up and outward, the land exploded up and outward. A lot of water turned instantly to steam. The asteroid itself disintegrated and tiny bits of it were carried high into the atmosphere along with ash, dust, molten glass created by the blast, and anything else that was nearby and not instantly incinerated.

The shockwaves from the impact acted as a magnitude 12 earthquake, with follow-up shocks estimated at about magnitude 9 occurring across the entire planet. Volcanoes erupted as a result, pumping even more ash and gases into the atmosphere. All the trees were flattened for about 930 miles around the impact, or 1500 km.

Within a few hours of the impact, fireballs of molten rock and glass were falling across the world, setting fires on land and heating the surface of the ocean to boiling temperature in many areas. And it was already getting really dark as the massive amounts of debris and dust and ash and smoke and everything else spread across the earth.

Okay, deep breath. This happened a long, long time ago and most animals died so quickly they didn’t feel anything. Look out the window if you’re feeling stressed and see how calm it is? Maybe it’s raining where you live or maybe it’s night-time and you can hear frogs or crickets calling, maybe an owl if you’re lucky. It might be daytime and you can hear cars passing by, or a dog barking somewhere, people talking. Whew. Okay, back we go to that awful day 66 million years ago, back to the fossil site found in North Dakota.

Back then, the middle of North America was a shallow sea. The first tsunami wave was probably 30 feet tall, or 9 meters, when it reached the mouth of a river emptying into the sea. It pushed the river backwards and washed hundreds of freshwater fish onto a sand bar. To add insult to injury, or just injury to injury, while the fish were stranded and flopping around trying to get back in the water, globs of molten glass and rocks rained down on them. Then another wave pushed up the river and covered the dead and dying fish with a lot of sand and sediment, which preserved them.

The site was discovered in 2013 and the findings were published in 2019. It’s not just fish at the site, although there are unbelievable numbers of fish. There are also tree trunks and branches that show evidence of burning, ammonites and other marine animals that were washed up the river, even part of a triceratops and a hadrosaur. One charred trunk is covered in amber, which is fossilized tree resin. The amber is full of tektites, which were caught in the resin when it was soft.

Every time I say tektite I think of those spidery things in Zelda, which makes this whole situation seem even worse.

None of the animals at the site show evidence of being eaten by anything. Some researchers estimate that the event took place less than an hour after the asteroid impact. There’s also a layer of clay on top of the sediment that contains high levels of iridium.

In all, roughly 75% of all life on earth went extinct following the asteroid impact. Many animals that survived the immediate aftermath of the impact died out months or years later, and many more scraped along for hundreds or thousands of years before finally going extinct. The massive amounts of dust and ash in the atmosphere blocked sunlight for the next several years or even longer, which means plants died throughout the world. Poisonous gases in the atmosphere led to acid rain that killed more plants and animals. The ocean temperature dropped considerably, as did the overall temperature of the earth, leading to freezing temperatures that would have killed off even more animals. Deep-sea animals fared better than most, but many plankton went extinct very soon after the impact and that meant animals that ate the plankton also went extinct.

But, of course, not everything went extinct. If it had, I wouldn’t be recording this episode and you wouldn’t be listening to it. Awful as it sounds, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event wasn’t nearly as bad as the end-Permian extinction. Full recovery is estimated to have taken as much as 9 million years, when it took 50 million years for the earth to fully recover from the end-Permian extinction.

One thing that isn’t generally known is that things had been getting rough on earth for a couple of million years before the asteroid hit. Some species were already in decline due to climate change. The asteroid just made everything intensely worse.

The first plants to recolonize the blasted wastelands were ferns, lots and lots and lots of ferns. Ferns are tough plants and thrive in areas where nothing else can grow, and ferns grow quickly and provide food for lots of animals. Within a hundred years of the impact the world was carpeted with ferns.

Some dinosaurs did survive, of course, but we call them birds. They would have looked very birdlike even 66 million years ago. Most birds that survived were ones that lived on the ground instead of in trees. Researchers think many birds survived because they were able to eat seeds, which would have remained as a food source even after the plants that dropped the seeds had all died. Insects and other invertebrates that eat rotting leaves would have been just fine, and many birds could find and eat them too.

Mammals also survived the asteroid impact, of course. Look, here we are! We’ve done quite well for ourselves. 66 million years ago most mammals were small and rodent-like, and the ones that survived probably mostly lived in burrows and ate seeds and other plant material or small animals like insects.

Surprisingly, frogs did really well after the asteroid impact. Frogs are small and can survive in small microhabitats. While most of the frogs in North America went extinct, plenty of frogs survived in other parts of the world that weren’t so close to the impact site, and as soon as conditions improved, more species evolved than ever before. That’s why frogs across the world look so similar. They may not all be closely related, but they all faced the same environmental pressures at the same time.

Once plants started to recover, things took a turn for the better as birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other animal groups suddenly didn’t have to watch out for dinosaurs or the other big predators that had gone extinct. Sauropods and other giant herbivores weren’t eating up all the plants. Life evolved rapidly to fill the available ecological niches, and animals started getting bigger and bigger.

In late 2019, scientists released details of a fossil site found in Colorado, in the western United States. It has an unbroken record of rocks dating from before the asteroid impact to about a million years afterwards. It gives us an excellent record of the changes that took place.

In the years after the impact, there’s not a lot to see, just lots of ferns and some rat-sized mammals. Within 200,000 years palm forests had replaced the ferns and cat-sized mammals were common. By 400,000 years after the impact, plants and trees with nuts evolved and many mammals were the size of dogs. By 700,000 years after, the relatives of modern bean and pea plants appeared, forests were varied and healthy, and the mammals were the size of wolves or bigger. There were animals other than mammals too, including a five-foot-long crocodilian, or 1.5 meters, with teeth adapted to crush turtle shells.

The ancestors of whales evolved about 50 million years ago around what is now India and its neighbors, when a little animal called Indohyus spent a lot of time in the water. It was about the size of a raccoon, which it resembled in some ways, except that its bones were unusually heavy for its size. This helped it stay underwater without effort. The hippopotamus has the same kind of heavy bones for the same reason, and Indohyus was actually related to the hippo’s distant ancestor. Within five million years, descendants of animals like Indohyus were fully aquatic and looked a lot like dolphins with small legs. As whales got bigger and faster, predators evolved too, including the largest shark that ever lived, Megalodon. The first baleen whales evolved around 25 million years ago and ultimately grew to the gigantic sizes of some of the whales alive today.

Every time you feel sad that you’ll never see a real live dinosaur like a sauropod, remember that you live at the same time as the undisputed largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale. It can grow up to 98 feet long, or 30 meters, and possibly longer. That’s as long as a ten-story building is high. It’s twice the length of Megalodon! If you have the money and time, you can actually charter a boat that will take you out to look at blue whales because they’re still alive!

I guarantee you that millions upon millions of years from now, in some far-distant future that we can’t even imagine, there will be scientists who study whales and write whatever those future people use as books, and there will be young people who read those books and look longingly at drawings of whales. They’ll know about dinosaurs, sure, and those will always be popular, but it’ll be the whales that really catch people’s imagination. There will be the far-future equivalent of movies where people successfully clone whales or bring them back from the past, and the details will be all wrong but no one will know because no one in that far future time will actually know what whales really look like! But you know, and that is the most amazing fact I can ever share with you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 227: The Great Dying



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It’s another extinction event episode! This one’s about the end-Permian AKA the Permian-Triassic AKA the GREAT DYING.

Further Reading:

Ancient mini-sharks lived longer than thought

Lystrosaurus’s fossilized skeleton:

Lystrosaurus may have looked something like this but I hope not:

This artist’s rendition of lystrosaurus looks a little less horrific but it might not be any more accurate:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s time for our next extinction event episode, and this week it’s the big one. Not the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs, but one you may not have heard of, one that almost destroyed all life on earth. I mean, obviously it didn’t and things are fine now, but it was touch and go there for a while. It’s the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or end-Permian, which took place just over 250 million years ago. It was so bad that scientists who aren’t given to hyperbole refer to it as the Great Dying.

Don’t worry, we won’t talk about extinction the whole time. We’ll also learn about some interesting animals that survived the extinction event and did just fine afterwards.

We have a better idea of what happened at the end of the Permian than we have about the earlier extinction events we talked about in episodes 205 and 214. Right about 252 million years ago, something caused a massive volcanic eruptive event in what is now Siberia. Some researchers speculate that the cause of the volcanic eruptions may have been a huge asteroid impact on the other side of the Earth, which was so powerful that it caused magma to move away from the impact like water sloshing in a jostled glass. The magma rose up toward the earth’s crust and eventually through it onto the surface.

The result was probably the largest volcanic event in the last half-billion years and it continued for an estimated two million years. Most of the eruptions were probably pretty low-key, just runny lava pouring out of vents in the ground, but there was just so much of it. Lava covered almost a million square miles of land, or 2.6 million square km. Ash and toxic gases from some eruptions also ended up high in the atmosphere, but one big problem was that the lava poured through sediments full of organic material in the process of turning into coal. Lava, of course, is molten rock and it’s incredibly hot. It’s certainly hot enough to burn a bunch of young coal beds, which added more ash and toxic gases to the air—so much ash that shallow water throughout the entire world became choked with ash.

The carbon dioxide released by all that burning coal caused severe ocean acidification and ocean anoxia—a lack of oxygen in the water. But it gets worse! A lot of lava erupted into the ocean right at the continental shelf, where the shallow coastal water becomes much deeper. This is exactly the place where you find methane deposits in the sediments on the ocean floor. When those deposits were suddenly disturbed by lava flowing into them, all the methane in the formerly tranquil depths was released and bubbled to the surface. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, meaning that if a whole lot of it ends up in the atmosphere in a short amount of time, it can cause rapid global warming—much faster than that caused by carbon dioxide. This global warming would have happened after a period of global cooling due to reduced sunlight reaching the earth through ash clouds, which lasted long enough and was severe enough that sea levels dropped as glaciers formed. Then everything heated way, way up. The ice caps melted, which may have led to a stagnation of ocean currents. This in turn would have contributed to the water’s anoxicity and toxicity. The average temperature of the ocean would have increased by almost 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or 8 degrees Celsius. Atmospheric warming may have been as much as 68 degrees Fahrenheit in places, or 20 degrees Celsius. That’s not the average temperature of the world, that’s the temperature increase.

So, basically, everything was terrible and it happened very quickly in geologic terms. A 2018 study found that everything looked pretty much fine for the 30,000 years leading up to the great dying. Some researchers even think the initial extinction event might have taken place over just a few centuries.

Marine animals were affected the most, especially marine invertebrates. Trilobites and placoderms went extinct, eurypterids went extinct, and corals went extinct until about 14 million years later when modern corals developed. Some researchers estimate that 95% of all marine species went extinct.

Things were better on land, but not that much better. At the end of the Permian, life was good on land and it was especially good for insects because of the high percentage of oxygen in the air and the variety of plant life in huge swamps around the supercontinent Pangaea. The largest insects that ever lived were buzzing around in the Permian. This included an order of insects called Meganisoptera, or griffinflies. Griffinflies looked like dragonflies and may be related to them. Some species had a wingspan 28 inches across, or 71 cm. The arthropod Anthopleura, sometimes called the giant millipede, lived in the Permian too. Some species grew six feet long, or 2.5 meters, and were about 18 inches wide, or 45 cm. It looked like a millipede but had even more legs. It probably looked scary, but it only ate plants as far as we know.

Instead of actively breathing the way most vertebrates do, most invertebrates use a passive system to absorb oxygen from the air. This is great when there’s a lot of oxygen. When the level of oxygen drops, though, the largest species can’t absorb enough oxygen to function and die out rapidly. That’s one reason why you don’t have to worry about spiders the size of bears. So all the large invertebrates and a lot of the smaller ones went extinct as oxygen was replaced with carbon dioxide, methane, and other toxic gases in the atmosphere.

The acid rain caused by toxic gases and the reduced sunlight caused by ash in the atmosphere also killed off plants. Forests died, so that the fossil record during and after the extinction event contains massive amounts of fungal spores from fungi that decompose trees. Some researchers think all of the world’s trees died. Forests disappeared for some four million years. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen, the lack of trees made oxygen levels drop even more.

Animals that depended on forests to survive also went extinct, including about two-thirds of all amphibians, reptiles, and therapsids. Therapsids were proto-mammals and it’s a good thing they didn’t all die out because they eventually gave rise to mammals.

Everything I’ve described sounds so incredibly bad, you may be wondering how anything survived. One stroke of luck was probably the size of Pangaea. That was the supercontinent made up of most of the world’s landmasses all smushed together. Before the extinction event, the middle of Pangaea was probably pretty dry with swampier climates around the edges. After the extinction event, the interior of the supercontinent was the safest place to be.

One of the most common land animals after the extinction event was a herbivore called Lystrosaurus. Lystrosaurus was a therapsid, and it was nothing exciting to look at unless you were also a lystrosaurus. Some species were the size of a cat while some were much larger, up to 8 feet long, or 2.5 m. It had a short snout, a short tail, and a semi-sprawling gait. A lizard walks with its legs stuck out to the sides, while a dog or cat or pig walks with its legs underneath its body. Lystrosaurus was somewhere between the two.

It probably lived in burrows that it dug with its strong front legs. While it had a pair of tusks that grew down from the upper jaw, those were its only teeth. Instead it probably had a turtle-like beak that helped it bite off pieces of vegetation.

Lystrosaurus lived in the central part of Pangaea, in what is now Asia, Antarctica, South Africa, and eastern Europe back when all those areas were all scrunched up close together. It survived the extinction event and expanded its range, and for millions of years it was almost the only big land animal in the world. It had almost no predators because they’d all gone extinct, and it had very few competitors for food because they’d all gone extinct. Lystrosaurus made up 90% of all land vertebrates for millions of years.

How did it survive when so many other animals died out? There are several theories, but the most important factor was probably its lack of specialization. It could survive on any kind of plant instead of needing to feed on specific species of plant. There’s also evidence that it could enter a torpor similar to hibernation where its metabolism slowed way down. This would have been a literal lifesaver during the time when the air and water were toxic and very little plant life survived. Lystrosaurus could hunker down in its burrow for long stretches of time, then come out and find enough food and water to keep it going for another stretch of torpor.

Just imagine the world back then, after the initial extinction event but before the world had recovered—say, a million years after the volcanic activity stopped. Picture a series of gentle rolling hills dotted with grazing animals. It’s peaceful and very open because there are no trees. Grass hasn’t evolved yet so the ground is covered in fern-like plants from the genus Dicroidium, which lives in dry conditions. As you look closer with your mind’s eye, you realize that every single one of those grazing animals—thousands of them visible in every direction—are the same kind of animal that looks sort of like a fuzzy pig with a stumpy lizard tail, clawed feet, and a turtle’s beak. Lystrosaurus, living the good life.

In the ocean, the situation was similar. The shallows were toxic waste dumps of ash where the water had so little oxygen that nothing could survive. But the deeper ocean was still livable for some animals.

For a long time, scientists thought a group of early sharks called cladodontomorphs had gone extinct during the great dying. Their distinctive teeth had been common in the fossil record, but after the extinction event they disappeared. Cladodontomorphs only grew about a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and may have had a weird-shaped dorsal fin that pointed forward. They lived in shallow coastal waters. You know, the worst possible place to be 252 million years ago.

Then palaeontologists found some of those teeth in rocks that were in much deeper water 135 million years ago. It turns out the little sharks had survived the extinction event by moving into the open ocean where conditions were better. And they didn’t just survive, they lasted for another 120 million years.

So let’s break it down. It was probably four million years before trees developed again from different plants. It was some 14 million years before coral reefs could rebuild as modern corals developed after their cousins went extinct. It took 30 million years for terrestrial vertebrates to recover from the great dying and 50 million years for all the ocean’s ecosystems to fully recover. That’s a colossally long time. But it did recover.

So what animals arose once the recovery was well underway? Icthyosaurs. Archosaurs, which eventually evolved into pterosaurs, crocodilians, dinosaurs, and birds. And therapsids that eventually gave rise to modern mammals.

I don’t usually tease the following week’s show, but next week we’re going to learn about some weird and interesting animals that developed in the early to mid Triassic, after the extinction event was over and life started evolving in new directions. As I’ve said in the previous extinction event episodes: no matter how bad things get, there’s always going to be some little animal stumping along out of the carnage to get on with the business of surviving and thriving.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 205: Sea Scorpions and the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction Event



Happy new year! This week we’ll learn about the oldest mass extinction event, some 450 million years ago, and also sea scorpions.

Further reading:

Coming up for air: Extinct sea scorpions could breathe out of water, fossil detective unveils

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Hello, 2021, please be better than 2020 was. I’ve got lots of fun, interesting episodes planned for this year, but let’s start the year off right with an episode about, uh, a major extinction event. Specifically it’s the Late Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred around 450 million years ago. This is the first of a series of episodes about extinction events I have planned for this year, which I hope you’ll find interesting. We’ll also learn about an animal called the sea scorpion.

If you’ve listened to episode 69, about the Cambrian explosion, you may remember that the fossil record shows that around 540 million years ago life on earth evolved from simple organisms into much more complicated ones. This happened relatively quickly in geologic terms, about 15 to 25 million years for life to go from microbial mats, simple worms, and single-celled animals to fantastical creatures with shells and spikes and novel ways of feeding as animals adapted to fit new ecological niches.

But what happened after that? A series of extinction events, that’s what.

The first extinction event researchers can identify from the fossil record is called the End-Botomian extinction event, which happened around 510 million years ago in two phases. We’re not sure what caused the extinctions, but the main theory is that a series of massive volcanic eruptions caused climate changes that led to acidification of the oceans and a resulting loss of oxygen from the water. This was followed by another extinction event around 500 million years ago. All told, during these ten million years or so, about 40% of all species of animal went extinct.

But remember, all we have to work with is the fossil record. Researchers know how old particular rock strata are, strata being the term for layers, so when they find a fossil embedded in a rock they know roughly how long ago it lived. Only a small percentage of animals that ever live end up fossilized, and only a small percentage of fossils are ever found by humans, and only a small percentage of fossils found by humans get studied by experts. So while scientists do their best, they’re working with a limited amount of data to determine what happened half a billion years ago. It’s like trying to determine the rise and fall of empires from a series of random photographs.

But when older rocks show a whole lot of fossils of various kinds, and then slightly younger rocks show way fewer or no fossils, researchers can be pretty sure that something catastrophic happened to kill off a lot of animal life in a relatively short amount of time. If they find the same changes in rocks of the same age in different parts of the world, the catastrophe was probably worldwide and serious enough to impact life on Earth for thousands or even millions of years. That’s what happened in the late Ordovician.

Around 460 million years ago, about the time that life was getting back to normal after the last extinction event, glaciers started to form across the land. Most of the continents at this time were smushed together into a supercontinent called Gondwana, which was mostly in the southern hemisphere. Much of the rest of the Earth was one big ocean, and it was hot and tropical just about everywhere. But that changed when temperatures dropped drastically. Glaciers formed, sea levels fell, and some 60% of all life on Earth went extinct, all possibly within about one million years.

We don’t know why, but we do have some clues and some theories. We know there was a major meteor event around 467 million years ago, which can be pinpointed because of the craters and specific minerals and bits of meteorites found that can only come from meteors hitting the earth. The impacts kicked dust into the atmosphere that then reflected sunlight back into space, causing less light to reach the earth.

Another cause might have just been a cyclical movement of the Earth in space. As you hopefully know, Earth rotates on its axis in a 24 hour period, giving us day and night, and at the same time it’s moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun in a 12-month period, which of course is a year. The sun and the other planets and everything else in our solar system are also moving in space in a larger orbit, and there are other even larger orbits that our solar system is part of within our galaxy, which is moving too. With all this movement all the time, it’s not surprising that Earth’s climate is affected in very long cycles, together with the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull making the Earth’s orbit just slightly wobbly. A combination of events, including where the Earth was in its orbit, might have caused the Earth to cool just enough that it set off an ice age. If this happened at about the same time that the meteor event also caused the Earth to cool a little, that would explain why the onset of glaciation happened so quickly in geological terms.

Whatever the cause or causes, it had serious repercussions. The cooling climate and drop in ocean levels as ice formed caused rapid extinctions of animals that lived in shallow water and were adapted to tropical climates.

But the extinction event was a one-two punch. The cold didn’t kill off every animal, of course, and those that remained evolved to take advantage of ecological niches that were suddenly empty. This is always how life manages after an extinction event. But these new species were adapted to the cold. And then, almost as suddenly as they formed, the glaciers melted.

Sea levels rose dramatically. The Earth warmed again, although not to its former levels. As the glaciers melted, cold fresh water flowed into the ocean and may have caused deep ocean water to rise to the surface, a process called upwelling. The deep ocean water brought nutrients with it that then spread across the ocean’s surface, and this would have set off a massive microbial bloom.

Microbial blooms sometimes happen today in small areas of the ocean or in lakes, especially in places where fertilizers make it into the water. Algae or bacteria that feed on certain nutrients suddenly have a whole lot of food, and they reproduce as fast as possible to take advantage of it. But the microbes use up oxygen, so much of it that the water can become depleted. This leads to massive die-offs of fish and other animals. But these modern microbial blooms are relatively small. The ones 450-odd million years ago might have been worldwide. As the glaciers melted they exposed more land, which meant more nutrients flowing into the ocean, feeding the microbial blooms that continued to deplete oxygen from the ocean.

The result was a severe lack of oxygen in the water that would have driven more species to extinction. Some researchers think it took three million years for the oceans to recover.

There are many other possible causes for the Late Ordovician mass extinction, although right now the cooling and then warming of the earth seems to be the most widely accepted among scientists. But whatever the causes, the results were dramatic. Entire families of animal went extinct, probably around 100 of them, and many others were affected. Some 70% of trilobite species went extinct, for instance.

The Late Ordovician mass extinction marks the end of the Ordovician era and the beginning of the Silurian around 443 million years ago. Remember that these names for eras are just the way that geologists and other scientists can indicate the age of an event or rock or fossil. It’s not like trilobites and brachiopods had little calendars and on one particular day that calendar said “Extinction” and everyone died. It was a gradual process, no matter how fast it occurred in geologic terms. If you had a time machine and could travel back to 450 million years ago, whatever day you arrived, the world would just look normal. You’d have to observe for at least hundreds of years to understand that the Earth was in the process of an extinction event.

You’ll be glad to know that the Silurian lasted almost 25 million years and was nice and quiet geologically. Life rebounded after the extinctions, as it always does, and more animals and plants adapted to live on land. Fish evolved rapidly during this time, developing bony skeletons and jaws. The Earth was comfortably warm but stormy, since the warm water and massive oceans would have spawned hurricanes that make the ones today look puny. But for the most part life was good in the Silurian.

The ocean was populated with lots of animals, including early fish, trilobites, crinoids, corals, leeches, and shelled animals called brachiopods as well as the more familiar mollusks. Sea levels were high and the land was mostly flat. There weren’t many mountains. So around Gondwana were lots of islands that were barely higher than the water level.

In the shallow oceans around what is now North America, an arthropod called the eurypterid was incredibly common, with some 250 species known. Many of them persisted until about 250 million years ago and they lived throughout the world. Eurypterids are often called sea scorpions, but they didn’t look much like modern scorpions. The typical Eurypterid looked a lot like the modern horseshoe crab, but with a longer segmented body and tail. But even though it looked sort of like a horseshoe crab, it may have been more closely related to modern scorpions.

The earliest sea scorpion known was Pentecopterus, which has been found in the fossil record in rocks dated to about 467 million years ago. It grew up to five feet 7 inches long, or 1.7 meters. One interesting thing to note is that it lived in a particular round basin some three miles across, or a bit over 5 km, in what is now Iowa in the United States. Researchers think it was actually a crater from a meteor impact near the ocean’s shore, and that the water in it was probably brackish. Remember how there was a major meteor event 467 million years ago? Pentecopterus was probably living in a crater made by one of those pieces of meteorite. It would have been the apex predator in that small environment, eating anything it could catch with its crablike legs. Later sea scorpions developed a pair of crab-like pincers at the front, along with a flattened tail that sometimes had a pointed barb at the end.

Eurypterids lived in the water. While some grew less than an inch long, or a few cm, some grew quite large. One species of Jaekelopterus could grow 8 ½ feet long, or 2.6 meters. That doesn’t even include the claws at the front that could extend at least another 18 inches, or 45 cm. It was probably a freshwater animal, and despite its size it was streamlined and lightweight, so it would have been an active predator. We even have fossilized fish bones that show puncture wounds that might have been made by its claws. Some eurypterids weren’t very good swimmers, though, and probably spent more time walking along the bottom of the shallow ocean.

So between Jaekelopterus in fresh water and the earliest known sea scorpion, Pentecopterus, in possibly brackish water, it’s obvious that from the very beginning the sea scorpion could adapt to various environments that other animals couldn’t. This adaptability is probably why the sea scorpion survived the extinction event that killed off so many other animals, and it continued to thrive for hundreds of millions of years afterwards.

Not only that, one fossil takes its adaptability a step farther. A geology professor named James Lamsdell heard about a strange eurypterid found in France that had been in a Scottish museum for 30 years. He arranged to have the fossil imaged with a CT scanner, which revealed its gills. And to Lamsdell’s surprise, the gills contained structures found in modern scorpions and spiders, which keep the gill plates from collapsing when it’s out of water. These structures have been retained in modern arachnids from their marine ancestors, and finding them in a eurypterid was shocking. It means that particular eurypterid could spend time on land. Lamsdell and his team think it came out of the water to lay its eggs, either in sheltered pools or in wet sand.

Eurypterids died out eventually, but their cousins, modern scorpions, are doing just fine after surviving many other extinction events. So try to be more like a scorpion, because obviously they’re doing something right.

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