Reporter 446, 7 February 2000

Fossils reveal end of the world as they knew it

Almost every living creature on earth was killed by volcanic activity that came within a whisker of setting the evolutionary clock back to zero, according to new research in the School of Earth Sciences.

Had a few hardy creatures not clung to life by the skin of their poorly developed teeth then their descendants, mankind, would not arrive on earth for another 250 million years.

Doomsday: Dr Paul Wignall (above) has found new clues to what really caused the biggest mass entinction in the earth's history. About 95% of all life was entinguished by volcanic activity

The volcanic eruptions that filled the air with acid and starved the seas of oxygen wreaked even more havoc than the event wiping out the dinosaurs, said researcher Paul Wignall. Over nine in ten of all plant and animal species were eliminated.

Dr Wignall and Dr Richard Twitchett analysed fossils from the end-Permian period (251 million years ago) brought back from Greenland. Over half a tonne of rock has disappeared down the sink after being carefully dissolved away in the search for victims of the biggest catastrophe ever to strike the earth.

"We have managed to show for the first time ever the precise sequence of events during this greatest of all mass extinctions," said Dr Wignall.

"The evidence suggests volcanic eruptions in Siberia spewed out enough carbon dioxide and sulphate to kill off almost everything within 10,000 years - that's a sudden event for a geologist!"

Professor of Earth Sciences Joe Cann said: "This is extraordinarily exciting. It is like viewing a mass extinction through a magnifying glass. Suddenly all sorts of details slot into place and new sharp images emerge from the murk. It is bound to have a radical effect on how we understand all other mass extinctions."

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