The Permian-Triassic mass extinction event is by far the most catastrophic known event to ever impact life on Earth. It occurred 251.9 million years ago. This cataclysm eradicated 90–96% of marine species and at least 70% of land species.1 It even wiped out insect species.2 Not even cockroaches survived the catastrophe.
What Happened during the Permian-Triassic Event?
As I described in my recent book, Improbable Planet,3 unprecedented volcanic eruptions, sufficient to pave Earth’s entire surface to a depth of 7–26 feet, characterized the Permian-Triassic catastrophe. These eruptions actually began before 251.9 million years ago but likely were greatly intensified by an enormous impact event in Antarctica.
The volcanic eruptions poured huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which raised global mean temperature by at least 9°F. This warming melted methane clathrate deposits, which released methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Wildfires raged and coal seams ignited, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. All this global warming deprived the oceans of oxygen and this extreme oxygen deprivation gave rise to vast blooms of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria throughout the world’s oceans.
Hydrogen sulfide is a deadly poison for oxygen-breathing life. Enough of it was emitted to kill the oxygen-breathers and at the same time degrade Earth’s ozone shield. What few species survived the toxicity of hydrogen sulfide likely were destroyed by the ultraviolet radiation streaming through the degraded ozone shield. Several more life-exterminating consequences of the Permian-Triassic event are described in Improbable Planet.4
Given the severity and the extent of the devastation from the Permian-Triassic event, scientists concluded “a sluggish recovery and low diversity of marine benthic [marine bottom dwelling] organisms during the Early Triassic.”5 Indeed, no fossil evidence of an ecosystem of benthic creatures larger than microbes and colonies of microbes existed until 10 million years after the Permian-Triassic event.
New Evidence Shows Life Recovered Quickly after Extinction Event
Thanks to a recently announced discovery, this picture of a sluggish, low-diversity recovery from the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event has been radically altered. A team of 18 paleontologists from seven different countries discovered nearly a thousand benthic fossils in southeastern Idaho.7 These fossils dated to 250.6 million years ago, only 1.3 million years after the greatest known mass extinction event.
What astounded the paleontologists was the incredible diversity of the benthic fossils they found. Their samples included fossils from 7 phyla and at least 20 distinct metazoan (large-bodied animal) orders. The ecosystem was complete in that it included middle-sized predators (15–20 centimeters long) and top predators. In other words, ecosystem balance and optimization did not take many millions of years to evolve. It appeared immediately.
Another shocker for the team was their discovery of a “Lazarus taxon.” They found a Cambrian leptomitid sponge species, a species that had been absent from the fossil record for 200 million years. As far as I know, this leptomitid sponge species represents the longest time period between the disappearance of a metazoan species and the reappearance of the exact same species.
Most evolutionary biologists do not believe that Lazarus taxa really are Lazarus-like. Rather than concluding that the Lazarus taxa went extinct, they hypothesize that the taxa simply shrank to such a low population level and such a limited habitat space that they left no fossils in the fossil record. Next, they hypothesize that much later, when favorable conditions returned for the taxa, the Lazarus taxa were resurrected from their low-population, limited-habitat states to rapidly multiply and spread out to a sufficient degree to leave fossils in the fossil record.
This evolutionary scenario may have some merit where the time separation between the disappearance of a species from the fossil record and its reappearance is relatively brief. However, 200 million years is not brief. It seems inconceivable that an actual existing species, especially a leptomitid sponge species, could remain completely undetected for that period of time. While the fossil record is incomplete, it is not that incomplete.
Another challenge to this evolutionary scenario are the results from conservation biology studies. These studies consistently establish that species suffering catastrophic population collapse and habitat loss, unless rescued by human intervention, rapidly go extinct.
Yet another challenge to this evolutionary scenario is the reappearance of the sponge taxon in the same form it had before it disappeared. The evolutionary paradigm predicts that species will evolve over time and the more time, the greater the amount of evolution the species will experience.
As great a challenge to the evolutionary paradigm as the discovery of the Lazarus taxon might be, I see an even greater challenge from the post Permian-Triassic boundary fossils discovered in Idaho. The title the 18 paleontologists chose for their paper says it all: “Unexpected Early Triassic Marine Ecosystem and the Rise of the Modern Evolutionary Fauna.” From an evolutionary perspective it is totally unexpected that such a diverse, complex, complete, and optimized ecosystem would arise so quickly after such a devastating and widespread extinction event. However, such an outcome is exactly what one would predict from a Creator intent on preparing Earth and its life for the arrival of human beings within the very narrow time window during which humans could exist and thrive.8