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When Life Nearly Died

The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time

Michael J. Benton


What caused the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history? Michael Benton assembles all the evidence and gives his verdict.

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Some 250 million years ago, 90% of life on earth was wiped out. It was the greatest mass extinction ever. What caused this catastrophe? In this revised and expanded edition of a classic account, Michael J. Benton assesses the competing claims for a meteorite impact or a volcanic eruption in Siberia and brings the story thoroughly up to date.

Hundreds of geologists and palaeontologists have been investigating all aspects of this astonishing event, conducting fieldwork around the world, especially in South China and Russia. New details allow us to demonstrate the close tie between the acid rain crisis on land and the anoxia in the oceans. Importantly, our view of the timing of the crisis has advanced enormously, with not only far greater precision in dating, but also the demonstration that there were two peaks of extinction, and then repeated crises for 5 million years afterwards.

A great deal of new research has focused also on the slow recovery of life to a more normal state. New sections explore how the great Mesozoic sea dragons became established at the tops of the marine food pyramids, and how, unexpectedly, the crisis set in motion one of the greatest events in palaeontological history: the origin of the dinosaurs.

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'Brings back to Earth Science a sense of adventure ... it is both a wonderfully good read and a valued reference'
James Lovelock, author of Gaia

'A superb book that tells a gripping tale … a dénouement worthy of Hercule Poirot'
The Times Higher Education Supplement

Product Information

Book Details

Format: Paperback

Edition Type: Revised and expanded edition

Size: 23.4 x 15.6 cm

Extent: 352 pp

Illustrations: 48

Publication date: 20 July 2015

ISBN: 9780500291931

Contents List

Prologue: The Geological Time-scale • Chapter 1: Antediluvian Sauria • Chapter 2: Murchison Names the Permian • Chapter 3: The Death of Catastrophism • Chapter 4: The Concept that Dared Not Speak Its Name • Chapter 5: Impact! • Chapter 6: Diversity, Extinction and Mass Extinction • Chapter 7: Homing in on the Event • Chapter 8: Life’s Biggest Challenge • Chapter 9: A Tale of Two Continents • Chapter 10: On the River Sakmara • Chapter 11: What Caused the Biggest Catastrophe of all Time? • Chapter 12: Recovery from the Bring • Chapter 13: The Sixth Mass Extinction?

About the Author

Michael Benton is a palaeontologist who has made fundamental contributions to understanding the history of life, particularly concerning how biodiversity changes through time. He has led in integrating data from living and fossil organisms to generate phylogenies — solutions to the question of how major groups originated and diversified through time. This approach has revolutionised our understanding of major questions, including the relative roles of internal and external drivers on the history of life, whether diversity reaches saturation, the significance of mass extinctions, and how major clades radiate. A key theme is the Permo–Triassic mass extinction, the largest mass extinction of all time, which took place over 250 million years ago, where he investigates how life was able to recover from such a devastating event. Michael has written engaging books for children on the theme of dinosaurs, as well as a significant number of palaeontology textbooks for university students. He founded the MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol in 1996, from which more than 450 students have graduated. He has supervised more than 70 PhD students.

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