Megafauna Extinctions

About 13,000 years ago, close to 80% of the megafauna were wiped off the map.  Mammoths, mastodons, dire wolves, giant sloths, and smiledons or sabre-tooth tigers all disappeared.  And Clovis points made by Paleo-Indians cannot be found in dig sites after 13,000.  What caused this mass extinction?

About 13,000 years ago, a climate change occurred, called the Younger Dryas, also known as the Big Freeze.  The weather got colder and dryer for over 1,000 years.  Typically, the megafauna had survived many climate changes over the years, so why was this change so devastating?  Well, it seemed to be rather sudden with temperatures dropping about ten degrees and large dust storms and draught killing off plant life.  What caused the Younger Dryas?

There are two major theories as to what caused the Younger Drysas stadial.  First, scientists argue that the earlier warming period caused a significant influx of freshwater along the St. Lawrence River to the North Atlantic that disrupted the current and conveyor system that moderated the weather.  This could have led to colder weather.  Second, some scientists have discovered nano diamonds and other extraterrestrial evidence in the layers above 13,000 years ago.  They have uncovered fullerenes, extraterrestrial carbon carriers, which were also discovered in the Permian-Triassic layer, which could be evidence of a meteorite or comet that caused that extinction as well as that in the Younger Dryas.  Actually, the second theory could be the primary reason with the influx of freshwater being a secondary reason.

The Wisconsin Glacial Episode technically ended about 11,000 years ago, about the same time that the Younger Dryas ended.  The megafauna had survived significant climate variations during the different ice ages over the centuries, so why did the Younger Dryas lead to extinctions?  The first theory does not provide a good answer, but the second one does.  The megafauna could not survive the rapid changes caused by the comet or meteorite that may have hit.  Where is the evidence of a crater in North America?  Well, since it probably struck the deep ice sheets that covered the northern part of North America, the crater in the ice would have melted.

No Clovis points have been found during the Younger Dryas period.  Folsom points dating back to 9,500 years ago were the next spear heads located in America after the Clovis points.  The 3,000 year gap is difficult to bridge.   The Folsom Paleo-Indians seem to have genetic connections to Asia and the Clovis Paleo-Indians may have a nexus to Europe.  If this is true, the Asian presence either was able to survive the Younger Dryas period or entered North America when the climate improved.  They clearly were the forefathers of the Native Americans that populated North America when the European explorers landed on the east coast.

If you examine the moon, there are hundreds of craters, so it would not be unusual for earth to be the target for numerous comets and meteorites over the years.  Most of these craters have been erased by erosion.  If the meteors were large enough, they could have had a devastating impact on life on earth at that time.

One of these was probably the culprit that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.  At the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary, when the dinosaurs went extinct, there are large amounts of the metal iridium, which typically is not found on earth, but is found on meteorites.  It is highly likely that a large comet or meteorite impacted earth about 13,000 years ago, causing the extinction of the megafauna.

Stromatolites – Our Ancient Ancestors

Our earliest ancestor was a plant, not an animal.  This most ancient ancestor was a stromatolite dating back more than 3.5 billion years ago or about a billion years after our earth was first formed.   Stromatolites consist of blue-green algae that aggregates, creating layers.  Even though most of our early ancestors have gone extinct, stromatolites still exist today.  A large population is located in the Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay in western Australia.

Stromatolites were the most abundant fossils found in rocks dating to the Precambrian era, from the origin of Earth about 4.5 billion years ago to 544 million years ago.  Stromatolites became prolific starting about 2.5 billion years ago, releasing oxygen into the environment which set the stage for animal life.  Both plant and animal kingdoms diversified over the years, but stromatolites remained the same since they were able to adapt to many environments and did not require diversification to survive.  They formerly existed all over the world, but today they are endangered.

Over billions of years, both plants and animals evolved into large trees and dinosaurs, but there were many mass extinctions that cut off the branches in our family tree.  One of the most widely discussed was the death of the dinosaurs, which occurred about 65 million years ago.  The K-T boundary or thin geologic line representing the end of the Cretaceous and beginning of the Tertiary ages included iridium.  Iridium is found primarily in meteors.  This was strong evidence of when the large mountain of a meteor about six miles wide crashed into the Yucatan Penninsula near the town of Chicxulub in Mexico.

Scientists are fairly confident that this meteor caused significant stress on the dinosaur population, but are not certain if this event could have accounted for the mass extinction by itself.  However, if you examine the effects of the meteor’s impact, it might be sufficient.  The impact set off volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, and tsunamis, all sending dust and debris into the atmosphere, where it blocked sunlight for centuries.  This created a nuclear winter with temperatures plummeting.  There were wildfires all over earth, causing acid rain.  This sounds pretty convincing, but there is one more piece to this puzzle.

About this same time, a large volcanic eruption occurred in the Deccan Traps located in the northwestern part of the Deccan Plateau in India.  It may be the largest volcanic province in the world, consisting of more than a 6,600-foot depth of basalt lava flows covering an area of 190,000 square miles.  When the event occurred, some estimates show that 580,000 square miles were impacted.  This would have been a significant event, which when combined with the meteor could have been too much for the dinosaurs.

Some scientists believe that the Deccan Traps eruption occurred first about 66 million years ago, lasting for thousands of years, and then the Yucatan meteor smashed into the earth about 65 million years ago, causing a double whammy which wiped out the dinosaurs.  However, it may be more than a coincidence that the Yucatan impact area is on the opposite side of the world from the Deccan Traps.  If you place your finger of your right hand on the area where the meteor landed and a finger of your left hand on the Deccan Traps on a globe of the earth, these locations are eerily opposed to each other.

I don’t believe in coincidences.  I would argue that the time lines need to be reexamined.  It is more likely that the meteor stuck first, which triggered the great Deccan Flats eruption.  Whether this occurred 66 or 65 million years ago is not known, but it must have been closer in time than scientists believe.

Mammals were able to survive these events and over time, an animal called Homo erectus popped up in the east African rift zone about 2 million years ago.  These hominids were able to stand upright, so we believe that we descended directly from them.  Homo sapiens seem to have entered the scene about 500 thousand years ago, and the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which is very similar to modern man, can be found about 200 thousand years ago.

Our subspecies just barely hung on after the mega-volcanic eruption at Lake Toba in Indonesia about 75,000 years ago.  This was the biggest eruption that we know about during the history of earth, which caused a nuclear winter just like the Yucatan meteor and Deccan Flats eruption.  Our species came very close to being wiped out.  There were only about a thousand of our species that survived this event, which explains why all humans are so genetically similar.  After surviving the ice age, our species started repopulating the earth about 10,000 years ago.

So the bottom line is that Homo sapiens sapiens has not been king of the earth for very long.  In the great scheme of things, we should examine all our ancestors and realize that we are very insignificant in the great scheme of things, not only in the amount of time that we have occupied the earth, but also in our vulnerability to changes.  We have been very fortunate that we are right in the middle of a warm, moderate period, but will we survive the next ice age or cataclysm?  Time is really not on our side.

Extinction of Dinosaurs

It would be very unusual if one event or one problem wiped the dinosaurs off the face of the earth.  The dinosaurs were scattered around the world, so typically one activity would not completely annihilate a species that had adapted to multiple threats over millions of years.

Many scientists point to one event as causing the Cretaceous mass extinction about 65 million years ago, killing off all the non-avian dinosaurs.   That event was the resulting death from the impact of a meteorite about six miles wide, forming the Chicxalub crater in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  About half of the crater is on land and the other half is in the ocean with the center located near the town of Chicxulub.  The crater is more than 110 miles in diameter and 12 miles in depth, making the feature one of the largest confirmed impact structures on earth.

As detectives who are investigating murders will tell you, time lines are critical to establish in determining cause of death.  Clearly, the timing of the death of the dinosaurs and the meteorite’s impact was more than a coincidence.  The impact occurred about 66 million years ago, just about the time of the end of the Cretaceous period when the dinosaurs expired.  Geologists have even found a thin layer separating the Cretaceous and Tertiary (K-T) boundary, which evidenced an impact that would have distributed a layer of debris around the world that could have blocked out the sun for years, creating an impact winter.

This evidence is sufficient to prove that it was not just the impact of the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs.  The climate change, which killed off plants and some animals, would have also contributed to the mass extinction.

However, there may have been other factors that came into play.  On the other side of the world, the Deccan Plateau in India are one of the largest volcanic features on earth.  The Deccan Traps, a large igneous province about the size of Texas, is located in the Deccan Plateau.  These Traps were formed about 60 to 68 million years ago in pulses.  However, the largest eruption occurred about 66 million years ago.  Another coincidence?

Probably not.  The eruptions of the Deccan Traps had started millions of years before the meteorite crashed into earth, but the largest eruptions, which may have lasted about 30,000 years, may have been triggered by the impact of the meteorite on the opposite side of the earth.  But whether the meteorite caused the horrific eruptions in India or not, these two events occurred simultaneously, which would have caused an exponentially deadly environment for the dinosaurs.

Volcanic gases, especially sulfur dioxide, from the volcanic eruptions added to the debris kicked up by the meteorite would have caused a climate change.   Because of its magnitude, scientists have speculated that the gases released during the formation of the Deccan Traps played a role in the extinction.

This impact winter could have caused a sudden tipping point, so that the land-bound dinosaurs, perhaps already on the ropes from some other cause, could not recover as they normally would do.  For example if the creation of Pangea and land bridges allowed migrating dinosaurs to travel into areas where new pathogens and diseases would have weakened them, this may have set them up for the final kill.  Typically, when we stay in the same area for millions of years, our bodies build up immune systems that can survive well in those areas, but when we move into foreign areas with new pathogens, our immune systems may not be able to do as well.  An example is when Europeans brought diseases to natives in the Americas.

Even though it is not probable that one incident destroyed all land-based dinosaurs, it does seem likely that the dinosaurs were not doing very well when they got hammered with two major events, a meteorite impact and a super-volcanic eruption, that created the final, fatal turn of events for them.