Molecular and isotopic evidence reveals the end-Triassic carbon isotope excursion is not from massive exogenous light carbon

by C.P. Fox et al., Dec 1, 2020 in PNAS


The end-Triassic mass extinction that occurred ∼202 Ma is one of the “Big Five” biotic crises of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is also accompanied by an organic carbon isotopic excursion that has long been interpreted as the result of a global-scale carbon-cycle disruption. Rather than being due to massive inputs of exogenous light carbon into the ocean–atmosphere system, the isotopic excursion is shown here to reflect regional sea-level change that caused a transition from a marine ecosystem to a less saline, shallow-water, microbial-mat environment and resultant changes in the sources of organic matter. The mass extinction that occurred slightly later, caused by abrupt injection of volcanogenic CO2, is accompanied by only modest changes in organic carbon isotopic composition.


The negative organic carbon isotope excursion (CIE) associated with the end-Triassic mass extinction (ETE) is conventionally interpreted as the result of a massive flux of isotopically light carbon from exogenous sources into the atmosphere (e.g., thermogenic methane and/or methane clathrate dissociation linked to the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province [CAMP]). Instead, we demonstrate that at its type locality in the Bristol Channel Basin (UK), the CIE was caused by a marine to nonmarine transition resulting from an abrupt relative sea level drop. Our biomarker and compound-specific carbon isotopic data show that the emergence of microbial mats, influenced by an influx of fresh to brackish water, provided isotopically light carbon to both organic and inorganic carbon pools in centimeter-scale water depths, leading to the negative CIE. Thus, the iconic CIE and the disappearance of marine biota at the type locality are the result of local environmental change and do not mark either the global extinction event or input of exogenous light carbon into the atmosphere. Instead, the main extinction phase occurs slightly later in marine strata, where it is coeval with terrestrial extinctions and ocean acidification driven by CAMP-induced increases in PCO2; these effects should not be conflated with the CIE. An abrupt sea-level fall observed in the Central European basins reflects the tectonic consequences of the initial CAMP emplacement, with broad implications for all extinction events related to large igneous provinces.