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5 Extinctions That Wiped Much of Life off Planet Earth

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Kevin Walsh via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

by Aliya Whiteley

The more we get to know about the history of the Earth, the more incredible it becomes. Our planet formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and for the first billion years it was without life. Then organic molecules began to form simple cells.

It’s tempting to think that from those first cells the business of evolution took hold and created the plants and animals we see today, but this simplified version overlooks some of the most catastrophic developments that happened along the way. Five mass extinction events have wiped out nearly every living thing on this planet. So the next time you’re feeling less than brave, remind yourself that you are descended from some seriously tough survivors. You’re already one of nature’s great success stories.

1. ORDOVICIAN-SILURIAN EXTINCTION—445 MILLION YEARS AGO

Most life forms were still living in the oceans at the time of the first mass extinction. There are many theories as to how that happened: global cooling that brought on an ice age, volcanic gases, or maybe changes in ocean chemistry. Whatever the cause, about 85 percent of species were wiped out.

2. LATE DEVONIAN EXTINCTION—375 MILLION YEARS AGO

The oceans recovered and teemed with life once more, and that diversity had begun to spread onto land at the time of the second mass extinction, when 79–87 percent of all species died due to environmental change. A series of several extinction events spread over approximately 40 million years wiped out most of the life on earth. The cause is unclear, but some scientists have theorized that the sudden increase in plant life could have triggered a period of anoxia (lack of oxygen). Other suggestions include volcanic eruptions on a huge scale, or another ice age.

Although plants may have triggered the destruction, it was the marine life that was hardest hit. Armored fish died out completely. Reef ecosystems vanished from the seas and were not seen again for the next 100 million years. But there were some who benefited: Into these gaps in the oceans’ ecosystems came some of nature’s hardiest survivors—the sharks.

3. PERMIAN-TRIASSIC EXTINCTION—250 MILLION YEARS AGO

This is also known as the Great Dying, and with good reason: 70 percent of land species and 90 percent of marine species disappeared, including half of all marine families. Plant life also suffered; only a few forests remained. It’s the only event in which insects also died out en masse. The devastation to life was so thorough, this mass extinction event is known as the Great Dying.

The culprit was, once again, environmental change. An enormous volcanic event in an already hot, dry climate led to a massive increase in carbon dioxide, and as ice sheets melted, methane escaped into the atmosphere, adding to the problem. These greenhouse gases led to the creation of anoxic conditions in marine habitats once more.

4. END-TRIASSIC EXTINCTION—200 MILLION YEARS AGO

After the Great Dying, it took approximately 20 million years for the Earth to recover. Unfortunately, soon after the Earth returned to its previous level of diversity, the next mass extinction came along and nearly wiped out the dinosaurs just as they were getting started. But it was the mammal groups who really suffered this time around, along with large amphibians: 76 to 84 percent of all species died out. The culprit may have once again been volcanic activity.

But dinosaurs managed to recover remarkably well, becoming the dominant creatures on the planet after this particular extinction event. And so they might well have remained, if it wasn’t for what happened next …

5. END-CRETACEOUS MASS EXTINCTION—66 MILLION YEARS AGO

This is the event we all know about. Many experts theorize that a large asteroid hit the Earth and contributed to rapid environmental changes. Sea levels plummeted, volcanic activity threw ash and poisonous gases into the air, and 71 to 81 percent of all species died. All non-avian dinosaurs perished, leaving the way clear for the small mammals that managed to survive.

BONUS: HOLOCENE EXTINCTION—10,000 BCE to ONGOING

And here we are today, having evolved from those small mammals. Are we in the grip of the sixth mass extinction of life on our planet? It's unclear how many species we're losing annually—one widely cited estimate is 140,000 species per year [PDF]—but it’s difficult to be sure of the size of the problem, as less than 3 percent of species on the planet are thought to have been formally assessed for risk.

The growth of humanity may be causing a loss of biodiversity, but the good news is that we have developed to the point where we might be able to do something about our own impact on the planet. We’re already aware of the problem—and there might even still be time to fix it.

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María Ríos et al / PLOS One
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Animals
Scientists Unearth a Giraffe Ancestor That Had Four Horns Instead of Two
Original image
María Ríos et al / PLOS One

The recently uncovered fossil of an early giraffe ancestor exhibits some noticeable differences from its modern giraffe descendants. It's several feet shorter, roamed Europe instead of Africa, and sports four horns on its head instead of two. As The New York Times reports, the discovery, outlined in a recent study in the journal PLOS One, sheds new light on the evolutionary history of the long-necked mammals.

The fossil belongs to a newly discovered species of extinct giraffe dubbed Decennatherium rex. It was excavated near Madrid, Spain along with the remains of three other specimens of the same animal, but the other fossils don't compare to the near-complete condition of the first. The creatures lived in the area 9 million years ago, moving the timeline of giraffids' presence in Europe further back than experts previously thought.

The ancient species stood 9 feet tall, making it shorter than today's giraffes. While D. rex lacked the modern giraffe's distinctive towering neck, paleontologists were able to classify it as a member of the same family by looking for its double-lobed canine teeth and the bony protrusions on its head called ossicones. Giraffes and okapis are the only remaining members of their family (though the giraffes we think of as one species may actually consist of four), and they both have one set of two ossicones that rise straight from the top of the skull.

Artist rendering of giraffe relative.

In addition to the two small horns at the front of its head, D. rex also appears to have had a second set. This feature differed in females and males: In the female D. rex, ossicones grew to be about 2 inches, while in males their second set could reach up to 16 inches. Though they varied in size, the fact that ossicones appeared in both sexes suggests that they didn't just evolve as a way for males to compete for mates.


The details of giraffe evolution, like how the species developed its elongated neck, are mysteries scientists are just starting to unravel. This most recent discovery adds another important link in the long history of the Giraffidae family.

[h/t The New York Times]

All images courtesy of María Ríos et al. in PLOS One

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The Body
8 Little Known Facts About the Temple
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iStock

The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

 

At the edges of the eyebrows, you’ll find the temple, the flat, tender side of the head where you often press your fingers to relieve a headache. In movies, one karate chop to this area can allegedly kill a person, but is this really true? What lies beneath that smooth surface of skin that’s so delicate? To learn more, Mental Floss spoke to Dr. Abbas Anwar, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Southern California Head and Neck Medical Group in Santa Monica.

1. THE TEMPLE IS A JUNCTURE.

profile of man
iStock

It's technically where four skull bones—the frontal, parietal, temporal, and sphenoid—meet in the skull. This vulnerable juncture is called the pterion, which means "wing" in Greek but sounds like a kind of dinosaur.

2. IT REVEALS A DISTANT LINK TO REPTILES.

lizard on branch
iStock

The temporal bone itself is made up of five smaller parts, which fuse together before birth. One of these pieces, called the tympanic part, may be evolutionarily linked to the angular bone in the lower jaws of reptiles.

3. IT'S THE THINNEST PART OF THE SKULL …

profile of human skull
iStock

While these skull bones are "relatively strong," though thin, Anwar tells Mental Floss, the point at which they meet is the weakest point because there's no solid bone beneath them. "As such, this area is at risk with direct horizontal blows."

4. … WHICH IS WHY MAORI WARRIORS CRAFTED A SPECIAL WEAPON TO CRUSH IT.

maori stone club
Australian Museum, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When Maori warriors of the first nations tribes of New Zealand and Australia went into battle, one weapon they took with them was the patu onewa, a flat, heavy club carved from stones such as basalt, and sometimes jade, for the specific purpose of delivering a fatal, crushing blow to the temple.

5. THE TEMPLE COVERS A MAJOR ARTERY.

historical medical illustration of head and scalp arteries
iStock

Running below these bones is a large artery known as the middle meningeal artery. It supplies blood to the outer covering of the brain, the meninges. "If hit hard enough, one of the four bones at this point can fracture inward and lacerate the middle meningeal artery," Anwar explains. This can cause an epidural hematoma, essentially "a collection of blood that builds up around the brain and compresses it."

Severe bleeding can cause "catastrophic consequences" if not recognized and treated promptly, including brain herniation (bulging brain tissue), hemiparesis (weakness of one side of the body), and death.

6. IS YOUR TEMPLE A SACRED SPACE?

section of the acropolis in athens
iStock

Etymologists don't entirely agree on the meaning of the word temple, which has multiple origins. It may derive from the Latin word for time, tempus, according to a Dartmouth Medical School anatomy course: "The connection may be that with the passage of time, grey hairs appear here early on. Or it may relate to the pulsations of the underlying superficial temporal artery, marking the time we have left here."

It could also possibly hail from the Greek word temenos, meaning "place cut off," which would explain the idea of a temple of worship as well as that juncture of bones at the side of the head. 

In Old English, tempel meant "any place regarded as occupied by divine presence," which might be code for the brain as the residence of consciousness or God.

More likely it's related to the Greek pterion, which as you'll recall means "wing." In Greek mythology, Hermes, messenger of the gods, wore a helmet with wings, which were positioned over the temples.  

7. IT'S PRONE TO SKIN CANCER THAT'S HARD TO REMOVE.

hand holding scalpel
iStock

Surgeon Gabriel Weston writes in The Guardian that skin cancers frequently turn up in this area from over exposure to the Sun, which makes for a challenging surgical procedure. "It is often not possible simply to sew up the hole in the skin after cutting a cancer out, since doing so can easily distort the contour of the eye," he writes.

To get around the problem, Weston uses a special technique called a Wolfe graft. After cutting away the cancerous lesion, "I measure out a circle of equal size in the skin above the collar-bone (where the skin is similar) and remove it." He grafts this skin patch to the patient's temple "with tiny silk sutures." 

8. BRAIN FREEZE ISN'T IN YOUR BRAIN.

three ice cream cones
iStock

Sometimes when you eat or drink something cold too quickly, you get brain freeze, which can feel like someone has taken knives to your temples. But the pain isn't actually in your brain at all, as brains have no pain receptors. While researchers haven't been able to determine a cause of what's technically called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, or sometimes HICS ("headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus"), they theorize that the painful freeze you experience is likely caused by a quick cooling of the blood in the back of your throat at the juncture your internal carotid and anterior cerebral arteries, which can cause spasms or constrictions of the arterial branches.

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