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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

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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 J. Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology and head of the Palaeobiology Research Group at the University of Bristol, which was identified by the Center for World University Rankings as the top palaeontology research group in the world. He has written more than fifty books, including the standard textbooks in palaeontology and When Life Nearly Died, also published by Thames & Hudson. Benton regularly offers media comment on new dinosaur discoveries.