The end of the Devonian period, 359 million years ago, was an eventful time: Fish were inching out of the ocean, and fernlike forests were advancing on land. The world was recovering from a mass extinction 12 million years earlier, but the climate was still chaotic, swinging between hothouse conditions and freezes so deep that glaciers formed in the tropics. And then, just as the planet was warming from one of these ice ages, another extinction struck, seemingly without reason. Now, spores from fernlike plants, preserved in ancient lake sediments from eastern Greenland, suggest a culprit: The planet’s protective ozone layer was suddenly stripped away, exposing surface life to a blast of mutation-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Just as the extinction set in, the spores became misshapen and dark, indicating DNA damage, John Marshall, a palynologist at the University of Southampton, and his co-authors say in a paper published today in Science Advances. It’s evidence, he says, that “all of the ozone protection is gone.”
Scientists have long believed—at least before humanity became a force for extinction—that there were just two ways to wipe out life on Earth: an asteroid strike or massive volcanic eruptions. But 2 years ago, researchers found evidence that in Earth’s worst extinction—the end-Permian, 252 million years ago—volcanoes lofted Siberian salt deposits into the stratosphere, where they might have fed chemical reactions that obliterated the ozone layer and sterilized whole forests. Now, spores from the end-Devonian make a compelling case that, even without eruptions, a warming climate can deplete the ozone layer, says Lauren Sallan, a paleobiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Because the evidence is so strong, it will make people rethink other mass extinction events.” [Continue reading…]