10 Fascinating Facts about the Permian Period - Earthly Universe

10 Fascinating Facts about the Permian Period


Long before the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, humid swamp forests, giant insects and amphibious megafauna ruled the landscape of the Permian Period.

The last geographical period before the rise of the dinosaurs, the Permian was also the last of the Palaeozoic Era. A time of immense climate change, it began during an ice age which started during the Carboniferous before shifting towards a wetter and more humid climate characterised by swamp forests and all manner of exotic beasts. Towards the end, the world became hotter and drier than it had been for hundreds of millions of years, eventually turning into a sun-scorched desert world that culminated in the severest extinction event the world has ever known. Fascinating times as they were, let’s explore some of the most amazing facts about the Permian.

#1. The Supercontinent of Pangaea Dominated the Map

Permian political mapMassimo Pietrob

The Permian map doesn’t bare much similarity to today’s map.

You’d be hard pressed to recognise the map of the Permian Earth. North and South America were fused to Africa, with Eurasia in the north and Antarctica and Australia joined to the south. One massive supercontinent, known as Pangaea, dominated the map, surrounding by the vast Panthalassic Ocean. This very different geographical configuration had an enormous effect on the climate, which was more uniform across different latitudes than it is today: inland areas were dominated by vast swathes of desert, while shallow seas surrounded humid swamp forests. It is now thought that the unique geology of Pangaea ultimately contributed to the Permian Extinction.

#2. Many Permian Fossils Were Discovered in the Karoo

Diictodon Viliam Simko

Discovered in the Karoo Desert, Diictodon was a resilient burrowing animal that lived in the sun-scorched Permian desert.

South Africa’s Karoo Desert is an archaeologist’s dream.Covering 154,000 square miles (400,000 km2), the Karoo Desert in South Africa is a veritable paradise for archaeologists owing to its great age and abundance of exotic fossils. The region is particularly important in studies of the Permian Period, owing to the many fossils that have been found there. Studies have also shown that the way many of the fossils have been preserved indicates massive changes to the climate that brought about the Permian Extinction. Among the many Permian fossils which have been found there are those of the mammal-like synapsid Diictodon and the 11-foot-long (3.4 m) predator rubidgea.

#3. Coniferous Forests Spread

Coniferous ForestPixabay

Conifers, which first appeared at the very end of the Carboniferous, thrived throughout the Permian.

The Early Permian landscape was much like the Late Carboniferous before it. Lush swamp forests reigned supreme across many coastal regions but, later in the period, the interior regions of Pangaea started to look more familiar as conifers radiated. By the end of the period, the swamp forests were restricted largely to equatorial islands. However, the Permian was notable for being a period of major transition regarding plant life, as seed plants like gingkoes and cycads, which remain to this day, spread throughout more inland regions. Coniferous forests were among the most successful biomes, and one of the few that survived the Permian extinction.

#4. Changing Climates Shaped Evolution

DesertPixabay

The Permian saw massive climate change throughout, but is best known for its dry desert landscapes.

Beginning under the grip of an ice age and ending in quite the opposite manner, the Permian saw climate change on an unprecedented scale. Sea levels were some 200 feet (60 m) higher than today, plummeting towards the end of the period to some 66 feet (20 m) below the current level, the lowest levels during the Phanerozoic Aeon (our current aeon). This trend, among other factors, saw the Permian climate change dramatically, warming towards the middle of the period. The palaeoclimate continued to dry during the Permian, particularly in the continental interior, but temperatures alternated between extremes of hot and cold.

#5. The Biggest Desert Ever Appeared

Desert landscapePixabay

Inland Pangaea was a vast desert that the moist air from the coast never reached.

As the climate dried and sea levels dropped, coniferous forests closer to the coast gave way to a sun-bleached desert that dominated the interior of Pangaea. Starved of water, this hostile, scorched-earth landscape was perhaps the biggest desert the world has ever known. Towards the very end of the period, temperature fluctuations had reached a new extreme. Nights were bitterly cold, while days were blasted by the intense heat of the sun, rather like modern deserts yet far more intense. It was around then that hardy animals, such as mammal-like reptiles lystrosaurus and the burrowing thrinaxodon, evolved to adapt to the extreme conditions.

#6. Exotic Megafauna Rose from the Swamps

Dmitry Bogdanov

Pareiasaurs like these were one of the biggest groups of land-dwelling animals.

While the preceding Carboniferous was better known for its horrifyingly large insects, the Permian saw an unprecedented rise in exotic terrestrial megafauna, including the largest land-dwelling beasts that had ever lived on Earth by that time. Among them were the iconic dimetrodons, a diverse range of synapsids, which included the 15-foot-long (4.6 m) dimetrodon angelensis. Another was the bunostegos, a knobbly-headed, armoured beast the size of a cow, which had also adapted to the hostile environment of the Permian desert. Large amphibians, such as the monstrous 10-foot-long (3 m) eryops, also appeared.

#7. Our Mammalian Ancestors Proliferated

PristeognathusDmitry Bogdanov

Pristeognathus was a dog-sized therapsid, a group of animals to which all mammals belong too.

Though mammals wouldn’t appear for at least another 83 million years (according to T.S. Kemp’s definition of a mammal), the first direct ancestors to all mammals were the therapsids, which evolved during the Late Permian. Among them were the large predators like the dog-sized pristeognathus. Another was the ominously named gorgonopsid, named after the mythological Gorgon. While the real gorgon probably didn’t turn its prey to stone, it was one of the largest land-dwelling predators of the time, sporting a mouthful of 5-inch-long (12 cm) sabres. It was also one of the largest animal orders, consisting of at least 41 unique species.

#8. Giant Insects Were the Apex Aerial Predators

Giant griffinflyPixabay

With a wingspan of 28 inches (71 cm), meganeuropsis was the ultimate aerial predator.

With birds still hundreds of millions of years away, the only animals taking to the Permian skies were insects. However, no flying insect was more formidable than the griffinflies, the largest of which had a wingspan of up to 28 inches (71 cm). This was the Early Permian meganeuropsis, a dragonfly-like creature and the biggest aerial predator of the time. These frighteningly large creatures were a result of the higher concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere, which had persisted from the Late Carboniferous. Such an animal could not survive in today’s environment, since insects don’t have lungs and instead need to breathe through tiny tubes.

#9. Catastrophic Greenhouse Events Transformed the Climate

Greenhouse effectZooFari, Wikimedia Commons

Major greenhouse events, one of the most common causes of extinctions, occurred at least twice in the Permian.

It’s safe to say that the Permian climate went completely haywire, particularly toward the end of the period. Alternating between hot and humid and cool and dry, it was a time of extreme change that lead to two major extinction events. The first occurred in the Guadeloupian Epoch, also known as the Middle Permian, when rampant volcanic activity led to a major greenhouse crisis. However, nature continued to evolve rapidly throughout, with more successful and adaptable animals quickly replacing those that could not keep up. In particular, the first major extinction event of the period saw the rise of many reptilian dynasties, some of which persist to this day.

#10. Most Life on Earth Was Wiped Out

Volcanic EruptionPixabay

Rampant volcanism was likely the ultimate cause for Earth’s most devastating extinction event.

252 million years ago was the day the Earth almost died. It was an extinction event of truly epic proportions, one that dwarfed even the catastrophic bolide impact that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs. Also known as the Great Dying, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction saw the disappearance of 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates. Occurring over a geologically short timespan of only 300,000 years, it was an event that only the hardiest of life forms could keep up with, and it took millions of years for Earth’s biodiversity to recover. The prime suspect is extreme volcanism leading to global warming and plummeting oxygen levels.

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 The end of the Permian heralded the end of the Palaeozoic Era, which had lasted for 289 million years. However, as after every major extinction event, the Earth proved her resilience once again, laying the foundations for the arrival of the dinosaurs in the Late Triassic. If you’d like to learn more about the exotic world of the Permian and its ultimate downfall, check out my recommended reading list below

Further Reading

 

 

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