A new theory suggests most of Earth’s mass extinction events could have been caused by a lack of essential trace elements in the world’s oceans, causing fatal deficiencies in marine animals, from plankton to reptiles.
Throughout the past 600 million years earth has been hit with five mass extinction events that devastated life on Earth. The dinosaurs were probably wiped out 66 million years ago by a massive meteor falling on modern-day Mexico, while the end-Permian extinction, which wiped out 90 per cent of species 252 million years ago, was probably the result of massive volcanoes in Siberia.
The new study:
Figure: Apparent percentage (not the absolute number) of
marine animal genera becoming extinct during any given
time interval. Labels denote the "big five" events
There is still debate about the causes of all mass extinctions and it may be necessary to consider combinations of causes. The most often discussed causes include, enhanced volcanic activities, global climate change, asteroid impact and anoxic events in which the middle and even the upper layers of the ocean become deficient or totally lacking in oxygen.
An australian group of researchers now have shown that a depletion of trace elements in the oceans could be another major factor in the end of the Ordovician event and two other major extinktion events. Trace elements such as zinc, copper, cobalt, manganese and selenium, in particular, are required for life in doses that have a very specific tolerance range. The researchers investigated the concentration of trace elements in sedimentary pyrite by using laser ablation coupled to inductively coupled plqasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICPMS).
Selenium requirements as well as toxic levels for phytoplankton, molluscs, fish and many plants and animals have been studies and are very well known. Researchers previously found that a global peak in selenium is linked to periods of high productivity; conversely, a lack of access to selenium would cause fatal deficiencies across a wide range of organisms. By looking through a large dataset of trace elements content in sedimentary rocks from the sea floor throughout the history of the world, the researchers matched extreme, global drops in selenium to one to two parts per million (ppm) with three of the planet’s mass extinction events: the end-Ordovician (443 million years ago), the Late Devonian (359 million years ago), and the end-Triassic (201 million years ago).
The supply of essential trace elements that begin the food chains for all life in the oceans is driven by plate tectonics. The uplift of mountains at plate margins causes erosion of crustal surfaces enabling trace elements to wash into rivers and end up in the seas. When erosion is prolonged and tectonics is slow, the supply of these essential elements slows down, and depletion of certain elements begins. Only activation of Earth’s engine, to drive more mountain building, seems to set the cycle back to normal again.
The researchers admit that their hypothesis is calling for further refinement from additional data, not only from pyrite samples filling in temporal gaps in their database, but also on minimal Se and other essential TE requirements across a wider range of living organisms to develop and test models of ecosystem collapse under times of severe TE oceanic depletion. The original studies
John A. Long, Ross R. Large, Michael S.Y. Lee, Michael J. Benton, Leonid V. Danyushevsky, Luis M. Chiappe, Jacqueline A. Halpin, David Cantrill, Bernd Lottermoser, Severe selenium depletion in the Phanerozoic oceans as a factor in three global mass extinction events
, Gondwana Res., 17 Oct. 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2015.10.001
: New Wave Research, Inc. - UP213 deep-UV YAG Laser Ablation System New Wave Research, Inc. - UP1903 Solid State Laser Ablation System Agilent Technologies 7500 a ICP-MS Agilent Technologies 7700 s ICP-MS
Related Studies (newest first)
R.R. Large, J.A. Halpin, E. Lounejeva, L.V. Danyushevsky, V.V. Maslennikov, B.G. Lottermoser, P.J. Sack, P.W. Haines, J.A. Long, C. Makoundi, Selenium and cobalt in sedimentary pyrite reveal Phanerozoic cycles of Earth's oxygenation
, Gondwana Research (2015). DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2015.06.004
E.E. Stüeken, R. Buick, A. Bekker, D. Catling, J. Foriel, B.M. Guy, L.C. Kah, H.G. Machel, I.P. Montañez, S.W. Poulton, The evolution of the global selenium cycle: Secular trends in Se isotopes and abundances
, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 162 (2015) 109–125. DOI: /10.1016/j.gca.2015.04.033
Eva E. Stüeken, Julien Foriel, Roger Buick, Shane D. Schoepfer, Selenium isotope ratios, redox changes and biological productivity across the end-Permian mass extinction
, Chem. Geol., 410 (2015) 28–39. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2015.05.021
Ross R. Large, Jacqueline A. Halpin, Elena Lounejeva, Leonid V. Danyushevsky, Valeriy V. Maslennikov, Daniel Gregory, Patrick J. Sack, Peter W. Haines, John A. Long, Charles Makoundi, Aleksandr S. Stepanov, Cycles of nutrient trace elements in the Phanerozoic ocean
, Gondwana Res., 28/4 (2015) 1282–1293. doi:10.1016/j.gr.2015.06.004
Ross R. Large, Jacqueline A. Halpin, Leonid V. Danyushevsky, Valeriy V. Maslennikov, Stuart W. Bull, John A. Long, Daniel D. Gregory, Elena Lounejeva, Timothy W. Lyons, Patrick J. Sack, Peter J. McGoldrick, Clive R. Calver, Trace element content of sedimentary pyrite as a new proxy for deep-time ocean–atmosphere evolution
, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 389 (2014) 209–220. DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2013.12.020
Kristen Mitchell, Paul R.D. Mason, Philippe Van Cappellen, Thomas M. Johnson, Benjamin C. Gill, Jeremy D. Owens, Julia Diaz, Ellery D. Ingall, Gert-Jan Reichart, Timothy W. Lyons, Selenium as paleo-oceanographic proxy: A first assessment
, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 89 (2012) 302–317. DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2012.03.038
A. Diener, T. Neumann, U. Kramar, D. Schild, Structure of selenium incorporated in pyrite and mackinawite as determined by XAFS analyses
, J. Contam. Hydrol., 133 (2012) 30–39. DOI:10.1016/j.jconhyd.2012.03.003
Y. Nakaguchi, Y. Mitsuhashi, K. Kitahata, A. Fujita, A. Sumiyoshi, Y. Kawai, Selenium speciation in the eastern tropical and subtropical South Pacific Ocean
, Sci. Technol., 21 (2008) 25–33
F. Fordyce, Selenium geochemistry and health
, Ambio, 36 (2007) 94–97. DOI: 10.1579/0044-7447(2007)36[94:SGAH]2.0.CO;2
G.A. Cutter, K.W. Bruland, The marine biogeochemistry of selenium: a re-evaluation
, Limnol. Oceanogr., 29 (1984) 1179–1192. DOI: 10.4319/lo.19126.96.36.1999
A. Shrift, A selenium cycle in nature ?
, Nature, 201 (1964) 1304-1305. DOI: 10.1038/2011304a0 Related EVISA Resources
Link Database: Selenium and Animal Health Link Database: Selenium and Plant Health Link Database: Environmental cycling of selenium Brief summary: ICP-MS: A versatile detection system for speciation analysis Related information: Early Earth Central: Extinction events National Geographic: Mass extinctions Wikipedia: Extinction events
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last time modified: November 12, 2015