Extinct and Endangered Plants and Animals

Why did dinosaurs become extinct?

How does a mastodon differ from a mammoth?

Although the words are sometimes used interchangeably, the mammoth and the mastodon were two different animals. The mastodon seems to have appeared first, while a side branch may have led to the mammoth.

The mastodon lived in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North and South America. It appeared in the Oligocene epoch (25 to 38 million years ago) and survived until less than one million years ago. It stood a maximum of 10 feet (3 meters) tall and was covered with dense woolly hair. Its tusks were aligned straight forward and were nearly parallel to each other.

The mammoth evolved less than two million years ago and died out about ten thousand years ago. It lived in North America, Europe, and Asia. Like the mastodon, the mammoth was covered with dense, woolly hair, with a long, coarse layer of outer hair to protect it from the cold. It was somewhat larger than the mastodon, standing 9 to 15 feet (2.7 to 4.5 meters). The mammoth’s tusks tended to spiral outward, then up.

The gradual warming of Earth’s climate and the change in environment were probably primary factors in the animals’ extinction. Early man killed many of them as well, perhaps hastening the process.

There are many theories as to why dinosaurs disappeared from Earth about 65 million years ago. Scientists debate whether dinosaurs became extinct gradually or all at once. The gradualists believe that the dinosaur population steadily declined at the end of Cretaceous Period. Numerous reasons have been proposed for this. Some claim the dinosaurs’ extinction was caused by biological changes that made them less competitive with other organisms, especially the mammals that were just beginning to appear. Overpopulation has been argued, as has the theory that mammals ate too many dinosaur eggs for the animals to reproduce themselves. Others believe that disease—everything from rickets to constipation—wiped them out. Changes in climate, continental drift, volcanic eruptions, and shifts in Earth’s axis, orbit, and/or magnetic field have also been held responsible.

The catastrophists argue that a single disastrous event caused the extinction not only of the dinosaurs but also of a large number of other species that coexisted with them. In 1980, American physicist Luis Alvarez (1911–1988) and his geologist son, Walter Alvarez (1940–), proposed that a large comet or meteoroid struck Earth 65 million years ago. They pointed out that there is a high concentration of the element iridium in the sediments at the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods. Iridium is rare on Earth, so the only source of such a large amount of it had to be outer space. This iridium anomaly has since been discovered at over 50 sites around the world. In 1990, tiny glass fragments, which could have been caused by the extreme heat of an impact, were identified in Haiti. A 110-mile (177-kilometer) wide crater in the Yucatan Peninsula, long covered by sediments, has been dated to 64.98 million years ago, making it a leading candidate for the site of this impact.

A hit by a large extraterrestrial object, perhaps as much as 6 miles (9.3 kilometers) wide, would have had a catastrophic effect upon the world’s climate. Huge amounts of dust and debris would have been thrown into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the surface. Heat from the blast may also have caused large forest fires, which would have added smoke and ash to the air. Lack of sunlight would kill off plants and have a domino-like effect on other organisms in the food chain, including the dinosaurs.

It is possible that the reason for the dinosaurs’ extinction may have been a combination of both theories. The dinosaurs may have been gradually declining, for whatever reason. The impact of a large object from space merely delivered the final devastating blow.

The fact that dinosaurs became extinct has been cited as proof of their inferiority and that they were evolutionary failures. However, these animals flourished for 150 million years. By comparison, the earliest ancestors of humanity appeared only about three million years ago. Humans have a long way to go before they can claim the same sort of success as the dinosaurs.


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