Bouncing Back from the Brink

Categories: Biosphere
This image shows the fossilized skull of the infamous saber-toothed Lycaenops, a predator that existed during the late Permian. The Lycaenops was a therapsid, or "mammal-like" reptile. The research team studied organisms like the Lycaenops in order to understand how ecological communities recovered after one of Earth’s largest-ever mass extinctions.
Credit: Michael Benton

The full recovery of ecological systems, following the most devastating extinction event of all time, took at least 30 million years, according to new research from the University of Bristol. The finding is helping scientists understand the interactions between past life and the environment of Earth.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, a major extinction event killed over 90 per cent of life on Earth, including insects, plants, marine animals, amphibians, and reptiles. Ecosystems were destroyed worldwide, communities were restructured and organisms were left struggling to recover. This was the nearest life ever came to being completely wiped out.

Previous work indicates that life bounced back quite quickly, but this was mostly in the form of “disaster taxa” (opportunistic organisms that filled the empty ecospace left behind by the extinction), such as the hardy Lystrosaurus, a barrel-chested herbivorous animal, about the size of a pig.

The most recent research, conducted by Sarda Sahney and Professor Michael Benton at the University of Bristol and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, indicates that specialized animals forming complex ecosystems, with high biodiversity, complex food webs and a variety of niches, took much longer to recover.

Sahney and Benton looked at the recovery of tetrapods — animals with a backbone and four legs, such as amphibians and reptiles — and found that although globally tetrapods appeared to recover quickly, the dramatic restructuring that occurred at the community level was not permanent and communities did not recover numerically or ecologically until about 30 million years later.

A plot of data on mass extinctions in Earth’s history. The Permian-Triassic extinction, sometimes referred to as the “Great Dying”, occurred around 250 million years ago.
Credit: University of Chicago

Sahney said: “Our research shows that after a major ecological crisis, recovery takes a very long time. So although we have not yet witnessed anything like the level of the extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian, we should nevertheless bear in mind that ecosystems take a very long time to fully recover.”

Professor Benton explained: “Diversity is most commonly assessed by tallying the number of taxa on a global scale, but these studies are subject to the vagaries of sampling. By examining well-preserved and well-studied faunas, the taxonomic and ecological recovery of communities after the Permian extinction event can be examined more accurately, and the problems of geological bias are largely avoided.”

The Permian extinctions occurred in three waves, the largest being at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods, 251 million years ago. This was the most devastating ecological event of all time, thought to be caused by large-scale volcanism in Russia which produced the “Siberian Traps”, covering over 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) in lava.

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