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Dinosaurs were wiped out in the 5th extinc­tion event.

Five major extinc­tions have rocked life on Earth. Dur­ing these peri­ods of mass extinc­tion, huge num­bers of species of life died out due to wide-scale envi­ron­men­tal changes. Many sci­en­tists claim that cur­rent­ly we are expe­ri­enc­ing a sixth mass extinction.

Fol­low­ing each of the mass extinc­tion events, the num­ber of species tend­ed to increase rapid­ly. In fact, with­in a rel­a­tive­ly short peri­od of time, there were often more species than exist­ed before the extinction.

About 65-mil­lion years ago, after the fifth extinc­tion, in which the dinosaurs were wiped out, an explo­sion of ear­ly mam­mals brought about the emer­gence of our human ances­tors – the ear­ly primates.

Some of the mass extinc­tions occurred slow­ly over long peri­ods of time, through grad­ual cli­mate change, for instance.

Oth­ers hap­pened sud­den­ly, through a cat­a­stroph­ic event like an aster­oid impact. How­ev­er they hap­pened, all the mass extinc­tions had major effects on the way life evolved on Earth. Most of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.

Of the five major extinc­tions, the last three are impor­tant to the evo­lu­tion of humans.

A cat­a­stroph­ic mass-extinc­tion event occurred 250-mil­lion years ago, prob­a­bly as a result of cli­mate change, caus­ing almost 95% of life on Earth to become extinct.

The Tri­as­sic Peri­od that fol­lowed saw the rise of dinosaurs and our ear­ly mam­malian ances­tors. Both these groups sur­vived the next mass extinc­tion, prob­a­bly caused by aster­oid impacts, which hap­pened 210-mil­lion years ago.

Dinosaurs sud­den­ly became extinct about 65-mil­lion years ago after the world was rocked by the impact of a giant aster­oid or vol­canic erup­tions, or a com­bi­na­tion of both.

Often a new group of species dom­i­nates after a mass extinc­tion because they are able to occu­py nich­es that had pre­vi­ous­ly been tak­en by oth­er species.

In this case, 65-mil­lion years ago, mam­mals start­ed to occu­py the places in the glob­al ecosys­tem the dinosaurs had pre­vi­ous­ly dom­i­nat­ed. A huge diver­si­ty of new mam­mal species evolved, includ­ing the ances­tors of all mod­ern species of mam­mals, and our hominid predecessors.

Humans have sped up the extinc­tion process by exploit­ing the Earth’s resources. The seri­ous dam­age we are inflict­ing on the world’s rich­est areas of bio­di­ver­si­ty has caused many sci­en­tists to believe we are caus­ing the sixth mass extinc­tion. If this is indeed true, it is the first mass extinc­tion caused by a species.

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Dodos were extinct by 1681.

Recent extinc­tions

The dodo is a famous exam­ple of extinc­tion in mod­ern times. The large, flight­less bird was dis­cov­ered on the Indi­an Ocean island of Mau­ri­tius in 1598 by sailors, but was extinct by 1681 – killed by humans and the dogs and pigs they intro­duced to the island.

South­ern African ani­mal extinc­tions in the past 200 years have includ­ed the blue­buck, an ante­lope with long curved horns, which was last seen at the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry, and the quag­ga, a sub-species of zebra, which died out in 1883.

Some esti­mates sug­gest more than 100 species are becom­ing extinct each day, and there are thou­sands of endan­gered species in the world fac­ing extinc­tion, from pan­das in Chi­na to tigers in India and wat­tled cranes in South Africa. Some pre­dic­tions warn that a quar­ter of all mam­mals will be lost in the next 30 years.

Sci­en­tists agree that human activ­i­ty such as min­ing, agri­cul­ture, set­tle­ment, pol­lu­tion and glob­al warm­ing are caus­ing a rapid dete­ri­o­ra­tion in biodiversity.

It’s up to us to reverse this trend.

Return to the Exhi­bi­tion Guide.