Contrasting microbial community changes during mass extinctions at the Middle/Late Permian and Permian/Triassic boundaries

Microbial communities are known to expand as a result of environmental deterioration during mass extinctions, but differences in microbial community changes between extinction events and their underlying causes have received little study to date. Here, we present a systematic investigation of microbial lipid biomarkers spanning ∼20 Myr (Middle Permian to Early Triassic) at Shangsi, South China, to contrast microbial changes associated with the Guadalupian–Lopingian boundary (GLB) and Permian–Triassic boundary (PTB) mass extinctions. High-resolution analysis of the PTB crisis interval reveals a distinct succession of microbial communities based on secular variation in moretanes, 2-methylhopanes, aryl isoprenoids, steranes, n-alkyl cyclohexanes, and other biomarkers. The first episode of the PTB mass extinction (ME1) was associated with increases in red algae and nitrogen-fixing bacteria along with evidence for enhanced wildfires and elevated soil erosion, whereas the second episode was associated with expansions of green sulfur bacteria, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and acritarchs coinciding with climatic hyperwarming, ocean stratification, and seawater acidification. This pattern of microbial community change suggests that marine environmental deterioration was greater during the second extinction episode (ME2). The GLB shows more limited changes in microbial community composition and more limited environmental deterioration than the PTB, consistent with differences in species-level extinction rates (∼71% vs. 90%, respectively). Microbial biomarker records have the potential to refine our understanding of the nature of these crises and to provide insights concerning possible outcomes of present-day anthropogenic stresses on Earth’s ecosystems.

Xie S., Algeo T. J., Zhou W., Ruan X., Luo G., Huang J. & Yan J., 2017. Contrasting microbial community changes during mass extinctions at the Middle/Late Permian and Permian/Triassic boundaries. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 460:180–191. Article (subscription required).

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