Kevin Walsh via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kevin Walsh via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

5 Extinctions That Wiped Much of Life off Planet Earth

Kevin Walsh via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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.


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.


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.


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.


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 …


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.


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.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."

iStock/Chloe Effron
Why Does My Skin Wrinkle in Water?
iStock/Chloe Effron
iStock/Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to

Have you ever noticed that your fingers and toes get wrinkled when you’ve been soaking in water for a while? We often call this “prune hands,” because it makes your fingers look shriveled like a prune. (A prune is a dried plum.) The shriveling happens when blood vessels under your skin get narrower. This is caused by your autonomic (Aw-toe-NAW-mick) nervous system. This system keeps your lungs breathing and your heart beating without you having to think about it. 

The wrinkles seem to help us grip and not slip! Look at the bottom of your shoe. Does it have grooves? Those are called treads. The tires on cars and buses have treads too. The water that goes into those narrow grooves gets pushed away. It works the same way with your skin. Water drains from your hands through these grooves. We think this helps us to hold onto objects better. Scientists tested this theory with an experiment. They asked people with wet, wrinkled hands to pick up wet marbles and dry marbles. People picked up the wet marbles faster with wet, wrinkled hands.

Some scientists now think that humans evolved (Ee-VAWLVD)—changed over time—to have this reaction. Being able to hold onto wet things might have helped our ancient ancestors survive. Think about it: if your food lives in a wet place, like a river, ocean, or rainforest, you have a better chance of grabbing it if your fingers “stick” to it. If you are climbing a wet tree, wrinkled fingers might help keep you from falling. Wrinkled toes can help, too. If you’re barefoot, your toes need a good grip in wet or muddy places. 

Want to hear more about the marble experiment? Watch this video from SciShow.


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