We're Repeating the Eco Changes That Caused Earth's First Mass Extinction

It was the appearance of organisms capable of altering their environments that changed life forever.

Smithsonian / Sarah Tweedt

New research suggests that the first of Earth’s five extinction level events was caused by something as inevitable as evolution, and the parallels to human behavior are worrying.

Published Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Vanderbilt University scientists argue that Earth’s earliest single-celled organisms were largely wiped out after 3 billion years when new microorganisms evolved to capture the sun’s energy in a photosynthetic process. The byproduct of oxygen was then toxic to most of Earth’s life. In essence, they changed the climate. Climate change, y’all!

“There is a powerful analogy between the Earth’s first mass extinction and what is happening today,” Simon Darroch, assistant professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt told Phys. “The end-Ediacaran extinction shows that the evolution of new behaviors can fundamentally change the entire planet, and we are the most powerful ‘ecosystem engineers’ ever known.”

On a related note, the United Nation’s recently released a report that shows plans from 50 nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions would do pretty much nothing to slow climate change, as floods and droughts grow common and the sea levels rise irreversibly. Sleep well out there.

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