While studying these rocks and sediments, which once covered a huge area spanning four continents, the scientists focused on mercury content. They explained that volcanoes give off mercury gas emissions, which accumulates in sediments.
Their investigation found that nearly all of the sediment deposits showed large increases in mercury content beginning at the end-Triassic point in history.
“The mercury concentrations are shown to be in sediments of the same age as hugely extensive lava flows, further strengthening the case for volcanism being the source of this mercury,” Percival said.
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He continued that the mercury increase was found to occur in the same sediments that record increased carbon dioxide during the end of the Triassic, supporting a volcanic origin for both gases.
This period further coincides with the end-Triassic mass extinction, which was once of the largest extinctions of animal life on record. Its long casualty list, including large crocodile-like reptiles and several marine invertebrates, amounted to around 76 percent of all terrestrial and marine species. The mass extinction also caused tremendous changes to land vegetation.
On the upside, it was during this time of death and destruction that dinosaur evolution really took off. Dinosaurs, which first emerged around 230 million years ago, were able to fill ecological niches left behind by the animals that went extinct. Some early mammals and amphibians benefitted from the food chain vacancies, too.
As for how volcanism impacted the end-Triassic environment, Percival said, “The favored model is typically a short, sharp period of intense global cooling due to the initial release of sulphur aerosols and ash into the atmosphere, partly blocking sunlight, followed by more prolonged global warming caused by long-term volcanic carbon dioxide release.”
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If Triassic animals like the giant croc-resembling reptiles were not directly burned to a crisp, they would have then experienced horrific climatic conditions challenging, and then ultimately ending, their existence.
Now two big questions remain. The first is: If the non-avian dinosaurs survived the end-Triassic volcanism, why did volcanic activity at the end-Cretaceous help to wipe them out? The researchers are not sure, but believe that the meteor impact 65.5 million years ago was a game changer, and that ecological factors were different during each extinction episode.