How climate change choked ancient life to death — and why it could happen again

The latest analysis, published in this week’s issue of the journal Science , puts together computer modeling of ancient ocean conditions and a close look at species characteristics to fit new pieces into a longstanding puzzle: What were the factors behind the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, also known as the Great Dying?

Penn and his colleagues began by matching up the ancient conditions with the traits of 61 modern-day marine species that parallel creatures from the Permian era, ranging from corals to sharks.

To double-check the findings, Stanford’s Jonathan Payne aod Erik Sperling analyzed the distribution of species in the late Permian era, as documented by the Paleoceanography Database, a virtual archive of published fossil collections.

This illustration shows the percentage of marine animals that went extinct at the end of the Permian era by latitude, from computer models (black line) and from the fossil record (blue dots).

(University of Washington Illustration / Justin Penn and Curtis Deutsch, with fossil drawings from Ernst Haeckel, Wendy Kaveney, Hans-Petter Fjeld and John White)

The findings are also in line with a scenario that Deutsch previously laid out for the extinction, in which warming oceans led to a speed-up in animal metabolism at the same time that the oxygen levels required to fuel that mechanism were running low.

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