The Devonian mass extinction: cataclysm or death by a thousand cuts?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: School of Biosciences


Complex multicellular life first appeared on Earth some 800 million years ago and subsequently diversified through a bewilderingly complex pattern of species originations/extinctions. However, this was not a steady and uninterrupted process. On at least five occasions the biota of the planet was devastated by a catastrophe that eliminated a considerable proportion of total biodiversity--including entire groups of organisms (higher taxa). These so-called 'mass extinctions' fundamentally changed the nature of life on Earth by steering evolution into a completely different trajectory.

Of the 'Big Five' mass extinctions by far the least understood is the Devonian mass extinction that occurred ca.370 million years ago. There is widespread debate regarding both the timing and nature of this event, which has led to a complete lack of consensus regarding its causes. This proposal seeks to investigate the Devonian mass extinction from a fresh perspective focussing on changes in carbon-cycling.

The Earth currently has two carbon-cycles of similar magnitude: a marine one based on photosynthetic plankton and a terrestrial one based on photosynthetic land plants. Fundamental changes in carbon-cycling took place during the Devonian due to dramatic changes in the nature of terrestrial vegetation. At the start of the Devonian land plants were centimetres tall, rooted in very shallow soils and covered a limited area of the continents. By the end of the Devonian vast swathes of the continents were shrouded in forests of trees tens of metres tall that deep-rooted into mature soils. These major vegetation changes caused profound changes in the terrestrial carbon-cycle (due to carbon sequestration from chemical weathering and biomass burial). We hypothesise that it was dramatic changes to the terrestrial carbon-cycle that disrupted the Earth system and caused the Devonian mass extinction. However, we believe that it was not a single catastrophic event (such as the bolide impact that caused the end Cretaceous mass extinction) but rather it occurred sequentially as discrete morphological/anatomical innovations led to changes in plant size and coverage causing step-changes in the terrestrial carbon-cycle.

The research project will focus on the Devonian sequences of northern Spain. These are ideal because they: (i) are remarkably complete and incorporate known extinction events at the Frasnian-Famennian and Devonian-Carboniferous boundaries; (ii) accumulated in isolation on a large microcontinent and as such are not influence by species immigration/emigration and habitat tracking; (iii) contain an excellent fossil record of both marine plankton (acritarchs and chitinozoans) and terrestrial vegetation (plant spores/pollen).

We will study the evolutionary dynamics of both the marine plankton and terrestrial vegetation through a study of species origination/extinction patterns. This biodiversity profile will be integrated with geochemical analyses that will identify perturbations in the Earth's carbon-cycle (in addition to nutrient cycling, redox conditions and volcanic activity). These data will be fed into an Earth Systems model for the Devonian carbon-cycle that we generate using inverse modelling techniques. The model will also incorporate data on the appearance of major plant groups and novelties (e.g. first forests).

Together these data will shed light on the nature and timing of Devonian extinction events among primary producers and link them to changes in the carbon-cycle. Our research will clarify many aspects of the Devonian mass extinction (nature and timing) and link it to the monumental changes in carbon-cycling brought about by the dramatic evolution of terrestrial vegetation. This will also serve as a warning for the present day regarding consequences of human induced changes to the Earth's carbon-cycle bought about by deforestation, soil erosion and other detrimental activities.

Planned Impact

The proposed research will make demonstrable contributions to the economy and society as the generated research-related knowledge/skill and training will enhance:-
Creative output
Economic competitiveness
Quality of life

It is critical to maintain a thriving UK science base and associated creative output. The proposed research addresses a long-standing and fundamental question in science. This innovative and World-leading science will enhance UK scientific prestige through the generation of key publications in top-ranking journals and presentations at international conferences (e.g. EGU, EPPC and TPS-AASP conferences).

Key to the UK's economic competitiveness is both energy security and success of the UK hydrocarbon exploration/development industries. Our findings will directly impact both due to their significance for biostratigraphical consultancies that serve these industries. We are in constant contact with this sector and our results will be made available to them through publications, conference presentations and general consultation. In particular we maintain contact with 300+ alumni of the Centre for Palynology, the vast majority of who work in this sector, through an annual newsletter that is distributed electronically. The newsletters are also posted on the internet for open access to all working in this sector []. Team members CHW and JEAM are also integral to training of the next generation of industrial palynologists (e.g. ten of CHWs past Ph.D. students now work as industrial palynologists representing both consultancies and majors including Saudi Aramco, Shell, Petroleum Development Oman). Beyond fossil-fuels palynology will continue to be an important discipline due to its industrial relevance to agriculture (e.g. entomopalynology), honey production (mellisopalynology), medical palynology (e.g. allergies) and forensic palynology. Training of the postdoc will help maintain UK skills in this discipline. In addition, development of young lecturer SG will expand UK modelling expertise (particularly regarding carbon-cycling) and help maintain long-term national capability.

We will improve quality of life through our involvement in the University of Sheffield's extensive and committed outreach programme. Fossils have an innate fascination and we ruthlessly exploit this to introduce young people to science and promote its enjoyment and importance. We plan to continue to develop these outreach activities, at events such as the Yorkshire Fossil Festival, where we will present our 'Jurassic Plants' stand. This has the added bonus of promoting plant science-based palaeontology and research that is often overshadowed by zoocentric 'charismatic' organisms.
Description Participation in the Yorkshire Fossil Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Yorkshire Fossil Festival is an annual event where palaeontological organisations (societies, museums, universities etc.) gather to promote our science to the general public. It is usually held at the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough but has also been held at the University of Hull and other locations. The University of Sheffield have prepared a stand called 'Jurassic Plants' where we display a selection of living specimen plants (living fossils), fossil plants, and microscopes showing slides of plant spores/pollen. Our posters and literature explain the uses of studying fossil plants and their dispersed spores/pollen in the context of reconstructing the vegetation and climate during the Jurassic reign of the dinosaurs. One of our main aims is to promote plant science to counteract 'plant blindness'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022,2023