There have been five major extinctions that have taken place since the beginning of life on earth. Each one is just as horrific as the next. The question is, what caused these extinctions? Did the species during these time periods mistreat the planet, forcing it to reset? I want to compare the Permian Mass Extinction to current events. The Permian Mass Extinction was also known as the “Great Dying,” the most massive extinction in history. Today, we are facing a global pandemic along with a climate crisis. Should we be taking this more seriously? Are we in a sixth mass extinction?

 

Life during the Permian period consisted of two groups of dinosaurs, the synapsids, and sauropsids. Synapsids are animals with a single hole in their skull behind their eyes. This group of animals are ancestors of today’s mammals. While sauropsids are divided into anapsids and diapsids, with either no openings or two openings behind their eyes, these animals are related to modern reptiles and birds. The synapsids were the more dominant species in this period. One dinosaur in particular, the Dimetrodon, from the Pelycosaurs group, was a fierce predator. This dinosaur had a lizard-like body and a large bony “sail” fin on its back that was used for thermoregulation. It’s important to note that the Dimetrodon’s skull, teeth, and jaw were similar to the skull’s of mammals. Aside from the land animals, there were other creatures in the Permian Period: Eryops, Diplocaulus, archosaurs, which includes a variety of amphibians, and fish, and lots of invertebrates such as insects and worms. (1)

 

How did all these creatures become extinct? Scientists agree that extreme volcanic eruptions could have caused significant change in the climate, which reset atmospheric conditions. Hot lava spread into the waters, and through the land. Most likely, this made it impossible for these animals to survive over time. I also wonder, with certain species like Dimetrodon, would the size and length of their legs become an impairment in connection to their environment? Since they were one of the first land-dwellers, how far and fast could these reptile-like mammals run if faced with erupting volcanos? More than 70% of the land animals became extinct, as well as 95% of the marine animals and the remaining Sauropsids became the dominant group. The Pelycosaurs evolved into a new class, the Therapsids and so on. That was the beginning of the Mesozoic Era. (1) A significant fact about the Therapsids was that they had very similar traits to mammals unlike the Pelycosaurs. They developed a hole in their hip sockets, which aligned their legs under their bodies, giving them a more upright stance for quadrupeds or four-legged mammals. So, they could run! They had more powerful jaws with tooth differentiation which is evident in early carnivores. Fossil skulls show evidence of whiskers, which indicates that some species had fur and were endothermic or warm-blooded. (1)

 

What other possibilities could have triggered the “Great Dying”? What about the probability of microbes? Researchers have reason to believe that the volcano eruption may not be fully responsible for the extinction 250 million years ago. Methanosarcina is a genus of single-celled organisms from the archaea domain that produces methane. This organism can be found in environments such as landfills, sewage heaps, deep-sea vents, deep subsurface groundwater, and even inside of animals like sheep, cows, goats, and deer. However, during the late Permian Era, the methanosarcina was born around the same time as the eruption. (2) The methanosarcina must have entered the ocean due to the deep-sea vents. Keep in mind that this organism makes methane, which is a chemical gas! In water, methane will quickly release into the air. However, in areas where there isn’t enough ventilation or clean air quality, it can build up rapidly, and cause a fire or an explosion. (3) This could explain why the marine population took the biggest hit, 95%, almost 100% of species died off due to volcanic activities spewing greenhouse gases into the air while heating the atmosphere quickly. It generated global warming at an all-time high. Many ancient animals just didn’t stand a chance.

 

Ten million years, that’s how long it took the earth to recover from its greatest catastrophe. This was the most significant hit earth has ever received. Fossil evidence and research suggests that this was the first and so far the only extinction to affect insects. Nonetheless, time is what the planet needed. The first species to recover was the ocean animals. At the top of the food chain, a group of animals called Nekton which include animals like dolphins. The earliest nekton chordates are the ichthyosaurs.  Usually, the first creatures to rebound after an ecosystem is annihilated are those at the bottom of the food chain. This fascinated paleontologists. Essentially, these creatures help lay the foundations for the overlying ecosystem to build upon. (4) I think because these species were affected, it might have been difficult for them to move on due to their low ranks. Or, perhaps that is why they move on! Needless to say, if there was at least one high ranking species to make it through the “Great Dying,” I can bet that species would recover faster than others. I want to quote, Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, “We often see mass extinctions as entirely negative, but in this most devastating case, life did recover, after many millions of years, and new groups emerged. The event had re-set evolution. However, the causes of the killing — global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification — sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.” (5)

 

Will we be the sixth mass extinction? Will we be the species that dies out? Presently, it’s the year 2020. First off, I’d like to point out that there are so many more people who aren’t knowledgeable about the environment. So, how will they know what to stop doing, and what to start changing? Therefore, this pandemic caught them completely off guard. I remember back in the early 2000s, and beyond, everyone believed that 2020 would be man-kind’s biggest year. This would be the beginning of the greatest technological advancements. Flying cars, robot butlers, and holograms, just like the cartoon series The Jetsons.  Nevertheless, it is a new decade, and humanity is far from flying cars. We are in the middle of one of the most significant modern-day pandemic, Covid-19.

 

Where did this begin? Like the origin of life story, the origin of the coronavirus story is being tackled by the best and brightest minds. And, like a paleontologist studying the fossil record for clues, epidemiologists are trying to decode the origins of this virus and put it all together. There are a few conspiracy theories about what started the spread of the virus – one is that Shi’s Lab in Wuhan, China accidentally released the virus. Another theory is that the virus was fabricated in a lab to use a bioweapon. Scientists mostly agree that the spread was completely natural and moved from species to species through wet markets. There is evidence that the coronavirus was worked on in a science lab, however not for bioweapons to use during war. I believe that theory came about through a rumor. Once people heard that Shi’s Lab was working on the virus, it created fear and paranoia. There is some truth to the first theory, Shi’s Lab was working on the virus, but as a research experiment. This virus does originate from bats, and the lab was using blood samples to research how dangerous pathogens are able to jump from animal hosts to humans. However, the coronavirus from Shi’s Lad and this new virus that’s spreading through humans aren’t exactly the same strand genetically. Scientists were able to find out that the new coronavirus has traits that allow it to “jump” from an animal to humans and use them as host. The virus at Shi’s Lad doesn’t have the ability to do that, so it couldn’t have been released accidentally. (6) Now, the theory about nature passing the virus around naturally is the only one that makes the most sense. Bats located in the caves of Myanmar, Southeast Asia carry at least 200 coronavirus. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV. The type of coronavirus we’re currently dealing with is SARS-CoV-2. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a betacoronavirus, like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV. All three of these viruses have their origins in bats. (7) The new virus was able to move from a bat jumping to different animals until it found the right one and was able to evolve and gain traits that would allow it to use humans as a host. Scientists have reason to believe that the animal was the pangolin. Pangolins are the most illegally trafficked mammal, because of their scales which is used for medicine; for their meat, which is a high-end delicacy in some countries; and for their blood, which is seen as a healing tonic. Due to these special properties it’s possible the virus could have gone through a number of species (including the pangolin) until it was able to come in contact with a human and spread. (6) A paper published in Nature examined a second set of Malayan pangolins seized from a smuggling operation and also found coronaviruses much like the ones previously studied. The authors concluded that pangolins should not be traded, because although there is no evidence these viruses jumped directly to humans, they have the potential to sicken people. (8)

 

U.S. overview of the coronavirus   (9)

Confirmed cases              1.19 million

Recovered patients          153,198

Deaths                           68,797

 

Global overview

Confirmed cases             3.53 million

Recovered patients          1.13 million

Deaths                           248,025

 

 

It’s no secret that the world is suffering greatly from this virus. These numbers continue to grow daily, by the hour in some cases. The question still remains, are we in a sixth mass extinction? Well, if we look back at the previous extinctions, the Permian Mass Extinction, what do these two events have in common? One main similarity are microbes. Both deadly events were somehow caused by bacteria (or a virus), methanosarcina and coronavirus. Next, is the “bigger picture” – climate change. It seems that global warming has always been an issue, especially with all the harmful chemicals that we release into the air such as exhaust from motor vehicles, factory pollutions, dangerous chemical sprays, etc. Later through the Mesozoic Era and going beyond the “Great Dying” of the Permian Mass Extinction, I’m not sure what kind of damage the dinosaurs could have done to cause climate change. It’s understood that dinosaurs became a dominant species and pretty intelligent similar to birds. The record shows biologically they adapted to changing environments for many years. I doubt they were mixing chemicals and using it pollute the atmosphere! Notable evidence shows that temperature changes in the air during prehistoric times most likely involved volcanic activity, which set off various movements through Earth’s history. I don’t think these animals did anything to trigger climate change.

 

I believe we are this planet’s biggest threat. The sad part is we don’t even realize it. There’s a terrible possibility that we are living in a sixth mass extinction, and we’re at fault. I’ve concluded that this coronavirus is the Earth’s way of saving us from ourselves. Humanity doesn’t recognize just how special our planet is or what’s at stake. Perhaps, the Earth is using this virus to send us a message. We need to open our eyes and take a good look around us and consider all the destruction we’re doing at an accelerated rate. There is a natural order. An ecosystem is setup to maintain the natural balance and we need to understand the importance of biodiversity. Humans are breaking that balance. The spraying, the gases, chemicals, deforestation, moving animals out of their natural habitat, the list goes on. The current stage of this pandemic is still unclear to most. I don’t know how far we are from getting things back on track. However, I do know that things won’t get any better if we don’t come together and fix our environment, we must do better. I think right now we’re demonstrating a great examples of how we can start. Supermarkets along with many other stores have started to make paper bags when option bagging customers’ purchases or they are encouraged to bring their own reusable bags. In addition, I’ve noticed restaurants, giving guest paper straws instead of plastic. Lastly, by staying inside and following the direction of scientists and health officials. Countries all around the world are in quarantine. Due to less people out on the streets, the air quality is much healthier. Can we recognize the effects of the pandemic may be a positive step towards community and a cleaner planet? Steps like this make a huge difference, for our health, and our home – living planet Earth.

 

  • Live Science, Bagley, Mary, “Permian Period: Climate, Animals & Plants”, livescience.com.
  • Arstechnica, Rathi, Akshat, “A new microbe might have accelerated the Great Dying, https://arstechnica.com/science.
  • Scientific American, Arnold, Carrie, “The Largest Extinction in Earth’s History May Have Been Caused by Microbes”, www.scientificamerican.com.
  • Eos, Joel, Lucas,”How Did Life Recover After Earth’s Worst-Ever Mass Extinction?”, www.eos.org.
  • Wired, Geere, Duncan, “Earth took ten million years to recover from Permian-Triassic extinction”, www.wired.co.uk.
  • The Washington Post, Warrick, Joby, “Chinese lab conducted extensive research on deadly bat viruses, but there is no evidence of accidental release”, www.washingtonpost.com.
  • CDC, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19), www.cdc.gov.
  • The New York Times, Gorman, James, “Significance of Pangolin Viruses in Human Pandemic Remains Murky”, www.nytimes.com.
  • Google News, “Coronavirus”, www.google.com

 

Natalie Grant is a senior majoring in Photgraphy and Video at SVA. “In the future I would like to get my MFA in Art Business, and open my own art gallery,” Natlie writes. ” I want to create a place for upcoming artists of color to display their work and brand themselves. I know how hard it is to get your work noticed and to find a place that fits your artistic style, since these are problems I currently struggle with. This organization will clear the path for those artists.” Natalie’s most recent work is about the beauty of African American women and their hair. “I want to share my culture and community with my audience, all the while empowering young black women and freeing them of their insecurities.”