What Triggers a Mass Extinction?

The second-largest mass extinction in Earth's history coincided with a short but intense ice age during which enormous glaciers grew and sea levels dropped. Although it has long been agreed that the so-called Late Ordovician mass extinction—which occurred about 450 million years ago—was related to climate change, exactly how the climate change produced the extinction has not been known.

The new work—performed by scientists at Caltech and the University of Wisconsin, Madison—is described in a paper currently online in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers combined information from two separate databases to overlay fossil occurrences on the sedimentary rock record of North America around the time of the extinction, an event that wiped out about 75 percent of marine species alive then. At that time, North America was an island continent geologists call Laurentia, located in the tropics.