The Dinosaurs’ Tale — Part I

The Earth sharts, almost kills everything off.

Scientists suppose it all began on a fine and dandy day about 252 million years ago, at a time known as the Permian. In some ways the Earth was just as it is today; the sun shinned bright in the sky, fish swam in the oceans and rivers, and insects hovered above the surface of ponds and streams.

In other ways, things were really different. The hovering insects huge, as large as fucking parrots. There were no things like flowers, grasses, broad-leafed trees, nor birds that sang in their branches. There were no snow-capped mountains or ice sheets on the poles. There were no people, primates, or any mammals at all either. And there were no dinosaurs.

But that’s not to say the Earth was devoid of life. Instead of oaks and elms, conifer and cicada clustered close together in dense forests that grew in foggy swamps. Since grass hadn’t yet evolved, the ground was covered in ferns that grew on bogs of rotting, semi-decomposed plant matter that possibly smelled like all kinds of shit, and that was the perfect habitat for millions of small organisms. Some of them would have looked familiar to us; arthropods like centipedes, insects and spiders, and tetrapods that looked like overgrown salamanders. Others looked like nothing alive today. And while they could neither fly or sing, a wide variety of lizard-like critters made the treetops their home. Among them were an insignificant group of insectivorous, scurrying little shits called Archosaurs.

Archosaurs seldom came down to the ground, where much bigger animals roamed, like the gargantuan, herbivorous reptiles that fed on the patchy, barely digestible greenery that sparsely covered the land. The largest were the Pareiasaurs. These were fat, grotesque animals with turtle-like skulls mounted on rhino-sized, armored bodies, the first herbivores in the history of Earth to reach that size. The Dicynodonts were vegetarians too, smaller than the pareiasaurs, but twice as fugly, resembling something like saber-toothed pigs with down syndrome. Yet in spite of their unfortunate looks, dicynodonts were unbelievably prosperous and diverse, making them prime targets for predators.

The largest ground predators in those days were the Gorgonopsids. Ranging in size from that of a house cat to as large as a hippo, they were the baddest motherfuckers around. Although they were strong and possibly smarter than their prey, their greatest asset were their legs. Gorgonopsids were some of the first predators on Earth to hunt on straight, erect legs. This may not sound like much, but back in the days when everything else on the planet walked on sprawling legs, being the only one around that could run without having to swing your body from side to side like a salted worm was a big fucking deal. This allowed them to chase and outrun unlucky dicynodonts, which they then crushed and dismembered using the massive canines mounted on their flattened, triangular jaws that made them look like bull terriers on steroids.

Life thrived in the oceans too, where things were just as weird and fucked up. Corals already grew in shallow waters, but the largest reefs were mostly formed by things like clams, sea lilies, and mollusks like conch snails that stuck to rocks since they hadn’t quite figured out how to drag their sorry asses across the seafloor like they do today. Starfish were around too, as were sea urchins, mantis shrimp and jellyfish, but there were no crabs, lobsters, or prawns, which means you couldn’t have opened a seafood restaurant in those days, or at least not one people would want to eat in. There weren’t any octopuses either, but their snail-shelled cousins, the Ammonites, filter fed on the free-floating plankton with their creepy little tentacles. They needed their shells too, since without them they would have been totally vulnerable to attacks from the primitive sharks with strange horns and crests that already lurked in the waters, and from an assortment of predatory fish like the 30-feet long, heavily armored Dunkleosteus, which would make the sea monsters in Jaws and Piranha look like pussy cuddly toys.

All of these species, terrestrial and aquatic, had evolved undisturbed for over 20 million years. In that time, life’s cycle had remained fairly stable; predators and prey competed to outmatch one another, males tried to get laid while females made sure most of them didn’t, trees struggled to get taller and reach more sunlight than their neighbors, and plankton just kind of floated there, letting everyone else devour large numbers o f them without really giving a fuck. Then, suddenly, on that fine and dandy day 252 million years ago, shit hit the geological fan.

The Siberian Traps are vast volcanic rock formations that stretch over 2 million square kilometers, or about 770 square miles, which is roughly the size of Western Europe. They’re found in Siberia, duh, which kind of explains why you’ve probably never heard of them. But they’re the single largest piece of evidence ever found of Earth’s only documented case of explosive diarrhea, or in geological terms, a number of successive super volcanic eruptions. The eruptions lasted for thousands of years, and it was one of the largest such events in recorded geological history. It very nearly killed off every living thing on the planet.

Up to 95% of all species disappeared, by some estimates.

The destructive power needed to have such a devastating effect on life would make Michael Bay jeez in his pants in multi-orgasmic fashion. Some geologists estimate that as much as a combined 4 million cubic kilometers of lava, or about 960,000 cu mi, spewed out the Earth throughout the event, and that as many as 7 million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface may have been covered by it. Neighboring forests, fern prairies, bogs, and their inhabitants, were either consumed by the lava or burned in the infernal fire storms triggered by the explosions.

Astonishingly, the cataclysmic explosions weren’t even the half of it. The “lucky” plants and animals far enough away from the eruptions not to be devoured by hellish molten rock and fire were only temporarily spared. Just like a case of the shits is often accompanied by the passing of some serious gas, so too did the Earth release large numbers of toxic and greenhouse gases that poisoned and warmed the atmosphere. Global temperatures in the ocean rose dramatically, boiling everything in them alive, and turning into a chunky, decaying seafood stew.

Paleontologists call this event The Great Dying. It was the closest life ever came to complete annihilation, and by the time the dust was settled, the world was a hot, toxic, dead piece of rock. Only a few, small and hardy species scrapped by.

Among them were the Lystrosaurs, a kind of dycinodont of pitiful appearance that thrived in the years following the event thanks to their ability to bury underground and eat whatever the fuck it could find, while the rest of their kin burned on the surface. The gorgonopsids and pareiasaurs weren’t as lucky. The first went completely extinct during the event, but their close relatives, the Therocephalians and the Cynodonts managed to slip through. Meanwhile the massive pareiasaurs died out too, unable find enough food to keep their fat asses going.

The tree-dwelling, bug-eating, lizard-looking little shits known as archosaurs made it too. Their small size, speed, agility, and ability to eat roasted cockroaches proved invaluable in surviving the event that marked the end of the Permian. After the great dying, archosaurs suddenly found themselves in an empty world, free of the massive herbivores and blood-thirsty carnivores that had trampled, shitted and fed on them for millions of years. It was a world ripe for the taking. It was the Triassic world, and the beginning of the Mesozoic era.

Post Script.

  1. It should be noted that not all scientist agree that the even that the Siberian Traps event was the sole cause of the Great Dying. In fact, many believe that the volcanic event itself was but a side product of a much larger catastrophe, perhaps a celestial collision of some sort, or the destabilization of the magnetic field by some kind of interstellar event, like a supernova. It is possible, if not probable, that a combination of these and perhaps other simultaneous shitty happenings were responsible for the unimaginable amount of damage done to life at the end of the Permian.
  2. Obviously, the many different classes and families of animals we see today that were already around at the time of the extinction made it through the event, albeit with heavy losses. Corals were very nearly whipped out, as were the animals that ultimately evolved into today’s cephalopods like octopuses and squids. Insects, which have survived many other mass extinction events pretty munch unscathed, suffered heavy losses too, with several families disappearing altogether, including the giant dragonfly-like Meganoptera.
  3. Since this is a story about dinosaurs I won’t be talking much about the oceans, but it should be noted that marine organisms suffered the greatest loss of diversity during this extinction, particularly microorganisms and other small animals that undergo calcification; the process of building a protective shell around their bodies for protection and shelter. The destabilization of atmospheric conditions drastically altered oceanic acidity and isotopic levels, which effectively stopped these organisms’ biochemistry in its tracks.
  4. Last but not least, it should be said that plants have proven time and time again to be essentially invulnerable to mass extinctions. Although the Permian forests were evidently gone by the end of the Great Dying, as is shown by the lack of carbon and coal deposits from that geological time, plants were also the first to recolonize the land. The explanation for this may simply be that seeds and spores are just very fucking hardy and durable. But that’s not to say that vegetable life wasn’t change by the extinction event. The distribution, diversity and ecological niches of plant families was greatly altered by it, meaning that while trees and plants in Triassic forests were the direct descendants from the ones in the Permian, they looked and evolved along different pathways than their ancestors’.
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