Press release issued 10 April 2008Today it is common knowledge that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite impact sixty-five million years ago, which killed half of all species then living.
Far less well-known is a much bigger catastrophe – the greatest mass extinction of all time – which occurred 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period. In this cataclysm, at least ninety per cent of life was destroyed, both on land, including sabre-toothed reptiles and their rhinoceros-sized prey, and in the sea.
After the event the Earth was a cold, airless place, with only one or two species eking out a poor existence. What caused destruction on such an unimaginable scale, and how did life recover?
Michael Benton’s book about this catastrophe – When Life Nearly Died: the greatest mass extinction of all time – has been published in paperback this week. Michael Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol.
James Lovelock said of the book: "Michael Benton’s book brings back to Earth Science a sense of adventure … it is both a wonderfully good read and a valued reference".
When Life Nearly Died documents not only what happened 251 million years ago, but also the recent rekindling of the idea of catastrophism, after it was seemingly extinguished in a great battle of ideas in the early nineteenth century. Scientists have at last come to accept that the world has been subject to huge cataclysms in the past. For the end-Permian event the killing models are controversial – was the agent the impact of a huge meteorite or comet over ten kilometres in diameter, or 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 very end of this book.
The book is published by Thames and Hudson, price £12.95, ISBN 978 0 500 285732. Michael J. Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaentology and Head of the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. Among his other books are Vertebrate Paleaontology, Basic Palaeontology and The Age of Dinosaurs in Russia and Mongolia.
Michael Benton’s book brings back to Earth Science a sense of adventure … it is both a wonderfully good read and a valued reference.