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The Permian Mass Extinction: 250 Million Years Ago





Today, our world teems with life. Wherever you look, you see something that’s alive; whether it be a tree, a bird or just some guy walking down the street. Then try imagining 95% of all the life that you see disappearing in virtually one go. It sounds like some nightmarish fantasy, but way back in the depths of prehistory, something like this did happen. It occurred so long ago, that the time scale seems totally unfathomable to us. The dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago; well, this cataclysmic event took place roughly 190 million years before that, so you get an idea of just how far back it happened. It was a time known as the Permian, roughly 30 million years before the first giant dinosaurs would appear. The dominant creatures at the time were odd looking animals that can be best described as half mammal and half reptile, indeed they were known as mammal like reptiles, and they were first vertebrates to fully conquer the Earth’s surface. Among them were Scutosaurus, a strange looking beast with a bulky body covered with bony lumps, in its day it was the equivalent of cattle. It may have lived in small herds roaming the Permian flood plains. Perhaps the most terrifying creature living at the time was a predator called Gorgonops, an imposing creature about as big as a rhino, but with a sleek, wolf like body. It also possessed two formidable weapons that some mammalian predators would later evolve, sabre teeth. They were capable of leaping onto the backs of creatures like Scutosaurus and pierce their thick skin using their dagger like teeth. These creatures had ruled the Earth for some 30 million years, but events totally beyond their control would prove to be their undoing.

A Map of the World 250 Million Years Ago

The supercontinent known as Pangea

The supercontinent known as Pangea

The Great Dying

The creatures described above, lived a full 250 million years before the present, they were seemingly in their prime, but they and almost everything else on Earth would die in an apocalyptic extinction event, called the Permian Mass Extinction. It was the biggest reverse on what had seemingly been a forward march in evolution. Yet, surprisingly until recently, almost nothing at all was known about it. Scientists knew that there had been a mass extinction, but were totally baffled as to what had caused it, why it had happened or even whether such a terrible thing could ever happen again. For years it seemed as if this mystery killer had left no trace whatsoever, no footprints, no fingerprints, nothing.

Then in the early 1990s, scientists stumbled upon on something in the frozen wastes of Siberia. Buried deep beneath the permafrost are thousands upon thousands of miles of lava, it’s an area known as the Siberian Traps, and in the present era it’s covered in thick layers of snow, vegetation and permafrost. But, 250 million years ago, this area witnessed one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the Earth’s history. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of square miles of Siberia caught fire. That particular eruption is what is known as a Flood Basalt eruption, where the Earth’s crust splits apart and releases great streams of lava that can cover an entire continent and last millions of years. The numerous eruptions would have also sent vast clouds of dust and sulphur into the atmosphere, causing nuclear winters that lasted for decades.

But that was just the beginning; as the skies cleared; vast amounts of gas, given off by the burning lava would have gradually wrapped the whole planet in a blanket of carbon dioxide, thus causing a greenhouse effect and ultimately global warming, which made our present climate change crisis seem minuscule. The resulting cloud of gas was enough to warm the entire planet by five degrees celsius. As a consequence, the seas also heated, causing marine life to die on a biblical scale, including the famous trilobites- an order of aquatic arthropods that looked similar to woodlice, but were only distantly related. Prior to the mass extinction a wide variety of trilobite species coming in all shapes and sizes had roamed the oceans for over 300 million years. Then, something else happened; the super heated water was enough to cause the release of a great plume of methane gas from the ocean depths. Earth suffered another injection of greenhouse gas, pushing global temperatures up by a further five degrees to an astonishing ten degrees hotter than they had been before. If such a thing were to occur today, then arid deserts would spread as far north as England and the Canadian Border. The superheated planet wiped out virtually everything in the space of around 80,000 years. The initial temperature increase caused a mass extinction on land, then when the seas heated marine life perished, finally with the Earth ten degrees hotter, the final hammer blow fell on most of what was left on land.

The Siberian Traps Eruption


Lystrosaurus- The Ancestor of all Mammals


The Aftermath

The greatest mass extinction event in Earth’s history would see evolution effectively reset itself. It took life around 100,000 years to recover, and when it did, a new family of reptiles would ultimately seize their chance and came to rule the world for the next 170 million years, the dinosaurs.

However, scientists have found fossilised remains of a strange looking mammal like reptile from the Permian world that managed to survive. It was approximately the same size as a cow, a herbivore and called Lystrosaurus. This creature has largely escaped our collective curiosity in regards to prehistory; instead our minds are full of Tyrannosaurus or enormous fifty tonne long necked giants. But this unobtrusive creature is probably one of the most important creatures that ever walked the Earth, because Lystrosaurus is probably the ancestor of all mammals, including us. We owe our very existence to a bizarre looking herbivore that somehow clung to life in the greatest mass extinction ever known.

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© 2012 James Kenny


James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 01, 2012:

Thanks very much Alun, very much appreciated.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on August 01, 2012:

My pleasure James. I'll probably give some more attention to a few of your megafauna hubs as soon as time permits.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on July 31, 2012:

Wow, thanks very much Alun, I'm totally overwhelmed, as soon as I've done this, I'll be off to read that review. I've always wanted to write about the Permian Mass Extinction- because it gets so little coverage compared to the more famous dinosaur extinction. Incidentally, the term dinosaur extinction is actually incorrect because not all dinosaurs became extinct, in fact there are still 10,000 species of them living today...its just that we know them as birds. Cool eh!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on July 31, 2012:

This page JKenny is impressive and useful, dealing as it does with an event in Earth history which most people know nothing of, and yet an event which had far reaching effects on all subsequent life on Earth. I like the examples you give of life at this time, and the overview of the disaster which befell the planet. It's also appropriate that you conclude with Lystrosaurus - perhaps the most important of all these creatures from our mammalian perspective.

I've written a review of ten of the best hubs about prehistoric life, and I was always going to include one of yours in the list. The review has just been published and this is the hub which I have chosen to include because of the significance of the subject matter. I have also included links to some of your other articles. Hope my review helps attract a little more traffic to your pages. Alun.

nicomp really from Ohio, USA on February 29, 2012:

It doesn't answer my question, but thanks.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 29, 2012:

Thanks for dropping by theking2020, really appreciate it. I'll give your article a read, no problem at all.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 29, 2012:

Thanks for the comment nicomp; here is a link that will hopefully answer your question:


nicomp really from Ohio, USA on February 29, 2012:

"Actually, paleontologists do know that. Apart from the families that went on to become modern birds, no dinosaur fossils are found that are younger than 65.5 million years. "

Using what dating method?

theking2020 on February 28, 2012:

Fascinating information of the extinction. Voted awesome.

Would love your feedback on my article.


James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 08, 2012:

No problem Scott, I find it more fascinating than the K/T Extinction because, a lot of people have written about what the world might be like today if the dinosaurs (non-avian) had survived. But imagine if the Permian had never taken place, the mind boggles to think what sort of creatures would be around today. Thanks for dropping by.

scottcgruber from USA on February 08, 2012:

"Actually, no one knows that."

Actually, paleontologists do know that. Apart from the families that went on to become modern birds, no dinosaur fossils are found that are younger than 65.5 million years. The time of dinosaur extinction is a fact. The exact reason for their extinction is theory, and currently the leading theory is that one or more bolide impacts caused rapid climate change that wiped out half of all animal species.

JKerry - thank you for a great hub on a less-well documented but still fascinating extinction event!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 17, 2012:

Thanks for the comment. I often think how cool it would be if Dinosaurs still existed today, especially Brachiosaurus, imagine a 50 tonne, long necked giant as big as a five storey building. Awesome.

wj-writingjockey from Earth on January 17, 2012:

Behind everything that God was created and taken away from this planet earth has a reasoning.

But having said that, your hub has actually excited me. I am excited of thinking how nice it would had been, had dinosaurs actually existed these days.

Mine favourite would had been TR.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 17, 2012:

I got my information from notes I took while watching a BBC Horizon documentary called 'The Day the Earth Nearly Died'. One of the scientists stated that they lived in vast herds. But, again a good point, because it's not fact merely speculation and theory, I've edited the Hub accordingly. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 17, 2012:

Good point, it was incorrect of me to assume that most of us knew that fact.

nicomp really from Ohio, USA on January 17, 2012:

"Scutosaurus...living in vast herds and roaming the Permian flood plains hoovering up any vegetation."

As far as I can tell, we have several full skeletons, found together, and a few remains of other skeletons. How do we know they existed in vast herds?


According to this site, Scutosaurus lived alone or in very small herds:


nicomp really from Ohio, USA on January 17, 2012:

"Most of us know that the Dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago"

Actually, no one knows that.