Mass Extinction

Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities

by Tony Hallam
New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 240 pages.

In Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities, the renowned geologist Tony Hallam reviews the cataclysmic events that have affected the career of life over the past half-billion years. Not concerned to promote a single hypothesis, he reviews a range of possible causes for mass extinctions, both individually and acting in concert. David J. Bottjer urged, "If you have been aware of the importance of mass extinctions in the evolution of life but need to know more about what caused them, then this is the book for you." Hallam is also the coauthor of the definitive treatise Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath.

Evolutionary Catastrophes: The Science of Mass Extinction

by Vincent Courtillot
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 188 pages.

Originally published in French in 1995, Evolutionary Catastrophes seeks to explain the competing theories on the causes of mass extinctions to a general audience, including, en passant, a discussion of the personalities involved and of the nature of science. Presenting the evidence for and against the rival accounts — asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions — Courtillot argues that the driving force of the mass extinctions of the last 300 million years was volcanic activity. Reviewing the book for Nature, Douglas Palmer wrote, "Courtillot gives a well-argued taste of the debate for the general reader and has been very well served by his translator, Joe McClinton."

Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago

by Douglas H. Erwin
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 320 pages.

Extinction, the publisher writes, "is a paleontological mystery story. Here, the world's foremost authority on the subject provides a fascinating overview of the evidence for and against a whole host of hypothesis concerning this cataclysmic event that unfolded at the end of the Permian." The reviewer for The Quarterly Review of Biology comments, "Although this book may frustrate readers expecting to learn how life nearly ended 250 million years ago, it will reward them with a fascinating case study in scientific inference, a case that remains very much open." Erwin is Senior Scientist and Curator in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Extinctions in the History of Life

edited by Paul D. Taylor
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 204 pages.

Extinctions in the History of Life is a collection of concise and clear essays intended to introduce students of biology and geology to the central issues of extinction. Contributors include Paul D. Taylor on extinction and the fossil record, J. William Schopf on extinctions in life's earliest history, Scott L. Wing on mass extinctions in plant evolution, David J. Bottjer on the beginning of the Mesozoic, Paul B. Wignall on causes of mass extinctions, and David Jablonski on the evolutionary role of mass extinctions. The reviewer for the Journal of Paleolimnology praised it as "a valuable summary and a benchmark for future reading."

Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History

by Peter D. Ward
New York: Penguin, 2005. 288 pages.

In Gorgon — its title a nod toward the gorgonopsids, cousins of the cynodonts from which mammals are descended, and casualties of the end-Permian extinction — Peter D. Ward combines paleontology with travelogue and memoir, examining his own "obsessive" interest in exploring the history of life as he recounts his fieldwork in the back country of South Africa. Pat Shipman described Gorgon as "a compelling and thoroughly readable account of science and scientists as they travel through space, time, ideas, and cultures ... A terrific book." A prolific author whose latest book is Under a Green Sky, Ward is professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath

by Anthony Hallam and Paul B. Wignall
New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1997. 328 pages.

Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath, published in 1997, was intended as the first systematic review of all the mass extinctions that have occurred in the history of life. "Having been largely ignored throughout most of the history of palaeontological and geological research," the authors write, "the subject of mass extinction has emerged within the last couple of decades as one of the most lively and contentious issues in the whole of science." The reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement described the book as "the only comprehensive, 'single-author' treatment of the major features of the entire paleontological extinction record."

Mass-Extinction Debates: How Science Works in a Crisis

edited by William Glen
Darby, PA: Diane Publishing Co., 1994. 370 pages.

When the impact hypothesis of the end-Cretaceous extinction was advanced in 1980, it sparked a massive debate among scientists. The articles included in The Mass-Extinction Debates attempt, in the words of its editor, to "take up the philosophy of those ideas, the logic and mode of their argumentation, and the behavior of the scientists involved." Contributors include William Glen, Elisabeth S. Clemens, Digby J. McLaren, J. John Sepkoski Jr., David M. Raup, S. V. M. Clube, Herbert R. Shaw, Leigh M. Van Valen, Kenneth J. Hsü, and John C. Briggs; interviews with William A. Clemens and Stephen Jay Gould are also included.

Night Comes to the Cretaceous

by James Lawrence Powell
New York: W.H. Freeman & Company, 1998. 268 pages.

Engagingly telling the story of how the impact hypothesis revolutionized how scientists think about the end-Cretaceous extinction, Night Comes to the Cretaceous was praised by David Fastovsky as "clearly the best" of "the welter of whodunits explaining the extinctions (including the dinosaurs) at the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) bounday 65 million years ago ... The prose is spare, yet lucid, and the book is lucidly written." Former director and president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Powell is also the author of Grand Canyon: Solving Earth's Grandest Puzzle and The Mysteries of Terra Firma: The Age and Evolution of the Earth.

Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth's Mass Extinctions

by Peter D. Ward
New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 320 pages.

From the publisher: "The book presents the gripping tale of the author's investigations into the history of life and death on Earth through a series of expeditions that have brought him ever closer to the truth about mass extinctions, past and future. First describing the three previous mass extinctions — those marking the transition from the Permian to the Triassic periods 245 million years ago, the Triassic to the Jurassic 200 million years ago, and the Cretaceous to the Tertiary 65 million years ago — Ward assesses the present devastation in which countless species are coming to the end of their evolution at the hand of that wandering, potentially destructive force called Homo sapiens."

T. rex and the Crater of Doom

by Walter Alvarez
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997. 236 pages.

A popular exposition of the hypotheses that the extinction of the dinosaurs was due to a meteor or comet impact, from one of the scientists who devised it — a not-to-be-missed classic. The reviewer for Scientific American praised it as "Engaging and witty. Read Alvarez for an excellent account of how scientists pose questions and seek to solve them," and Timothy Ferris described it as "a clear and efficient exposition that conveys plenty of cogent detail while keeping an eye on the subtle interplay of thought, action and personality that makes scientific research such arresting human behavior."

The End of the Dinosaurs

by Charles Frankel
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 236 pages.

From the publisher: "The End of the Dinosaurs gives a detailed account of the great massive extinction that rocked the Earth 65 million years ago, and focuses on the discovery of the culprit: the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico. It recounts the birth of the cosmic hypothesis, the controversy that preceded its acceptance, the search for the crater, it discovery and ongoing exploration, and the effect of the giant impact on biosphere. Other mass extinctions in the fossil record are reviewed, as is the threat of asteroids and comets to our planet today. The account of the impact and its aftermath is suitable for general readers."

When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time

by Michael Benton
New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005. 336 pages.

About 250 million years ago, life underwent its greatest extinction event, with up to 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. In When Life Nearly Died, Michael Benton presents the latest scientific research on the end-Permian extinction with accuracy and verve. Matt Ridley writes, "Unlike many palaeontologists, who are content to describe individual fossils, Benton also likes to think about big questions. He knows how to communicate with a general audience. ... When Life Nearly Died is now the book of choice for non-specialist readers who want to find out about the biggest catastrophe in the history of life."