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When Life Nearly Died

The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time

Michael J. Benton

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The implications of the mass extinction 251 million years ago told in an accessible, page-turning way


It is common knowledge that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite impact 65 million years ago that killed half of all species then living. Far less well-known is a much greater catastrophe that took place 250 million years ago: at least 90 per cent of life was destroyed, including sabre-toothed reptiles and their rhinoceros-sized prey, as well as vast numbers of fish and other species in the sea.

This book documents not only what happened during this gigantic mass extinction, but also the recent rekindling of the idea of catastrophism. Was the end-Permian event caused by the impact of a huge meteorite or comet, or by prolonged volcanic eruption in Siberia? The evidence has been accumulating through the 1990s and into the new millennium, and Michael Benton gives his verdict at the end of the volume. From field camps in Greenland and Russia to the laboratory bench, When Life Nearly Died involves geologists, palaeontologists, environmental modellers, geochemists, astronomers and experts on biodiversity and conservation. Their working methods are vividly described and explained, and the current disputes are revealed. The implications of our understanding of crises in the past for the current biodiversity crisis are also presented in detail.

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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 … Benton’s book is in part a geological detective story, but with a rich historical backplot. He finally names a culprit in a dénouement worthy of Hercule Poirot'
The Times Higher Education Supplement

Product Information

Book Details

Format: Paperback

Size: 23.4 x 15.5 cm

Extent: 336 pp

Illustrations: 46

Publication date: 7 April 2008

ISBN: 9780500285732

About the Author

Michael J. Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. He has written over 40 books, including Vertebrate Palaeontology, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Dinosaurs and When Life Nearly Died.