More than 90 percent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. As new species evolve to fit ever changing ecological niches, older species fade away. But the rate of extinction is far from constant. At least a handful of times in the last 500 million years, 50 to more than 90 percent of all species on Earth have disappeared in a geological blink of the eye..
The causes of these mass extinction events are unsolved mysteries, though volcanic eruptions and the impacts of large asteroids or comets are prime suspects in many of the cases. Both would eject tons of debris into the atmosphere, darkening the skies for at least months on end. Starved of sunlight, plants and plant-eating creatures would quickly die. Space rocks and volcanoes could also unleash toxic and heat-trapping gases that—once the dust settled—enable runaway global warming.
Massive floods of lava erupting from the central Atlantic magmatic province about 200 million years ago may explain the Triassic-Jurassic extinction. About 20 percent of all marine families went extinct, as well as most mammal-like creatures, many large amphibians, and all non-dinosaur archosaurs. An asteroid impact is another possible cause of the extinction, though a telltale crater has yet to be found.
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