Research ArticleGEOLOGY

Volcanic mercury and mutagenesis in land plants during the end-Triassic mass extinction

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Science Advances  23 Oct 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 10, eaaw4018
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4018


During the past 600 million years of Earth history, four of five major extinction events were synchronous with volcanism in large igneous provinces. Despite improved temporal frameworks for these events, the mechanisms causing extinctions remain unclear. Volcanic emissions of greenhouse gases, SO2, and halocarbons are generally considered as major factors in the biotic crises, resulting in global warming, acid deposition, and ozone layer depletion. Here, we show that pulsed elevated concentrations of mercury in marine and terrestrial sediments across the Triassic-Jurassic boundary in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany correlate with intense volcanic activity in the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. The increased levels of mercury—the most genotoxic element on Earth—also correlate with high occurrences of abnormal fern spores, indicating severe environmental stress and genetic disturbance in the parent plants. We conclude that this offers compelling evidence that emissions of toxic volcanogenic substances contributed to the end-Triassic biotic crisis.

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