These fossil crinoids lived approximately 460 million years ago in a shallow ocean that covered the area where Ontario, Canada is today. Relatives of sea urchins and starfish, crinoids attached themselves to the sea floor and filtered food from the water with their feathery “arms.” While there are still crinoids alive today they are not nearly as common as they were during the Paleozoic.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of Shanan Peters, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Mystery of Mass Extinction is No Longer Murky
News story originally written on June 17, 2008

About 250 million years ago, almost all of the life in the sea became extinct. This was during a huge mass extinction. Mass extinctions are when the number of different living things shrinks.  Over about the past half a billion years there have been five large mass extinctions. Now, scientists may have figured out why they happen.

Scientists have found that changes in sea level are the main reason that mass extinctions happen. Sea level rises and falls have a big impact on living things that call the ocean home. As sea level changes, some animals and plants survive while others go extinct.

Over hundreds of millions of years, the world's oceans have grown and shrunk because of plate tectonics and climate change. There were times in the past when sea level was high and huge areas of the continents were flooded by shallow seas. For example, 100 million years ago there was a sea in the middle of North America. Sea level dropped and the North American sea dried up. The mosasaurs and giant sharks that had lived in the sea because extinct.

Sea level change may not be the only reason for mass extinctions. There can be other causes too. When the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, for example, a giant asteroid crashed into Earth. Scientists think that the asteroid was large enough to change the climate which caused the dinosaurs to die.  Sea level change is not as dramatic as a crashing asteroid. It happens so slowly you can not watch it happen.  But over geologic time it is a powerful force and it appears to be the cause of mass extinction events over much of Earth history.

Last modified March 30, 2009 by Lisa Gardiner.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Sea Level

Sea level is the height of the ocean surface. Scientists measure sea level to figure out how much sea level rise is happening now because of global warming. If you tried to draw a flat line at the top...more

Plate Tectonics

Many forces change the surface of the Earth over time. The largest force that changes our planet's surface is movement of Earth's outer layer in a process called plate tectonics. As shown in this picture,...more

Geologic Findings Undermine Theories of Permian Mass Extinction Timing

You probably know that dinosaurs are extinct. That means they are no longer alive today. Millions of years before the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, there were plants and other animals alive. There were fish,...more

Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

Sea level is creeping higher each year as the Earth warms.  As sea level continues to rise, there are many low coastal areas worldwide where homes, towns and cities are in danger of being flooded...more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

Scientists have learned that Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, has erupted in the past due to the mixing of two different types of magma. Adam Kent, a geologist at Oregon State University, says this...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core. The mantle is made up of many different reservoirs that have different chemical compositions. Scientists...more

It’s Not Your Fault – A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some faults look strong and like they wouldn’t cause an earthquake. But it turns out that they can slip and slide like weak faults causing earthquakes. Scientists have been looking at one of these faults...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA