The Permian-Triassic extinction event is one of the most baffling in paleontology. It’s the only known mass extinction of insects, and 70% of all land-based vertebrates and a whopping 96% of all sea life bought the farm in an event nobody has ever quite been able to figure out. Now, scientists may have a new answer to what nearly ended life on Earth: Farts.
Specifically, the genus of farting bacteria known as Methanosarcina. As you may have guessed from the name, Methanosarcina likes to produce methane, but it needs certain circumstances in which to do it. According to Scientific American, essentially things went just wrong enough, 250 million years ago, for the little monsters to almost fart life out of existence:
…the M.I.T. researchers think that the vast quantities of nickel deposited by the eruptions allowed Methanosarcina to flourish…That release of large amounts of methane caused temperatures and ocean acidification to increase, and oxygen levels plummeted as O2 was used in the natural conversion of methane to carbon dioxide. Species began to die off. Then Methanosarcina dined on the decomposition and released more methane, triggering a positive feedback loop.
It’s not a proven theory; more of the bacteria will need to be found in other places before it can be locked in as the likely culprit. On the other hand, it does answer a pretty important question. One of the issues with the Permian-Triassic extinction is that certain types of gases like, yup, methane never fell from the ridiculous levels they hit. If the extinction was caused by a one-off event like a massive volcanic eruption or an asteroid plowing into the Earth, you’d expect those gases to naturally decrease over time.
This is something of a chilling reminder, though, in the sense that it underlines that we could very easily be knocked off as a species the same way. After all, this bacteria is still around, and even the species it didn’t murder with stench are long gone. So, if the air starts to smell a little sulfurous, it might be time to bust out the Lysol.