Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History
In Gorgon, geologist Peter Ward turns his attention reluctantly away from the asteroid collision that killed all the dinosaurs and instead focuses on a much older extinction event. As it turns out, the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago dwarfs the dino’s 65-million-year-old Cretaceous-Tertiary armageddon. Ward’s book is not a dry accounting of the fossil discoveries leading to this conclusion, but rather an intimate, first-person account of some of his triumphs and disappointments as a scientist. He draws a nice parallel between the Permian extinction and his own rather abrupt in research focus, revealing the agonizing steps he had to take to educate himself about a set of prehistoric creatures about which he knew almost nothing. These were the Gorgons, carnivorous reptiles whose ecological dominance preceded that of the more pop-culture-ready dinosaurs.
They would have had huge heads with very large, saberlike teeth, large lizard eyes, no visible ears, and perhaps a mixture of reptilian scales and tufts of mammalian hair…. The Gorgons ruled a world of animals that were but one short evolutionary step away from being mammals.
With characteristic enthusiasm, Ward transports readers with him to South Africa’s Karoo desert, where he participated in field expeditions seeking fossils of these fearsome creatures. He suffers routine tick patrols, puff-adder avoidance lessons, stultifying thirst, and the everyday humiliations of being the new guy on a field team. Besides telling a fascinating paleological story, Gorgon lets readers feel a bone-hunter’s passion and pain. –Therese Littleton
The gorgons ruled the world of animals long before there was any age of dinosaurs. They were the T. Rex of their day until an environmental cataclysm 250 million years ago annihilated them—along with 90 percent of all plant and animal species on the planet—in an event so terrible even the extinction of the dinosaurs pales in comparison. For more than a decade, Peter Ward and his colleagues have been searching in South Africa’s Karoo Desert for clues to this world: What were these animals like? How did they live and, more important, how did they die?
In Gorgon, Ward examines the strange fate of this little known prehistoric animal and its contemporaries, the ancestors of the turtle, the crocodile, the lizard, and eventually dinosaurs. He offers provocative theories on these mass extinctions and confronts the startling implications they hold for us. Are we vulnerable to a similar catastrophe? Are we nearing the end of human domination in the earth’s cycle of destruction and rebirth? Gorgon is also a thrilling travelogue of Ward’s long, remarkable journey of discovery and a real-life adventure deep into Earth’s history.
About the Author
Peter Ward, a recognized authority on mass extinctions, is professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Future Evolution, The End of Evolution, and, with Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth and The Life and Death of Planet Earth.
Paleontology at a Personal Level, January 16, 2004
Today’s schoolchildren, fascinated by Jurassic creatures, learn that the dinosaurs were mostly wiped out by a meteor that struck the area of the Yucatan 65 million years ago. This explanation was put forward only a couple of decades ago, and though it was revolutionary at the time, it has been confirmed so well that it is hard to imagine that there will ever be evidence to disconfirm it. Peter D. Ward, now a professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington, worked on evidence for this Cretaceous extinction, and then turned his attention to a previous extinction, one that makes the Cretaceous look like a fender-bender. In -Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History- (Viking), Ward has told the story of his researches into the Permian extinction, which 250 million years ago exterminated forever 95% of the species then living. This is a personal account, a memoir to tell about field adventures, the atmosphere in modern South Africa, and the theory he has come up with. It is a fine introduction to current ideas about the Permian extinction, and what it is that paleontologists do.
The Gorgon of the title was a beast something like a tiger, ten feet long. The fearsome Gorgon was not a mammal; it had eyes at the side of its head and it had scales on its body, both characteristics more associated with lizard-type creatures. And the Gorgon itself left no descendants. It was one of the victims of the Permian wipeout. Ward was in South Africa in 1991 to research another type of fossil, but circumstances sent him into the heat, cold, storms, flies, ticks, snakes, ants, and scorpions of the Karoo desert. The stratification there, and other evidence, brought fundamental changes in the way paleontologists view the Permian extinction. The eventual explanation includes that there was not a single, rapid event, but a series of short, successive ones altering the atmosphere and changing the population of creatures that could survive to beget the dinosaurs and mammals that were to come. The explanation isn’t final; no scientific explanation really is, but it is how things stand right now.
In addition to being a scientific memoir, Ward’s book describes visits to South Africa when that country was going through amazing changes. On one visit, he was interrogated by severe and unfriendly white passport controllers, for instance, whereas years later he would be greeted by welcoming black ones. He would also visit during times where he could show his white self anywhere with impunity, whereas years later to be white "meant that one had money and was fair game." He was informed on a later visit to avoid a certain region because it was Thursday; seeking clarification, he learned that Thursday was cremation day. AIDS had come, and he was being advised not to be downwind of the burning of the week’s accumulated bodies. Also, Ward is open about the effect of his career on his family, which he obviously loves, but he loves his travel to the field as well. Leaving them again for Africa, he can’t find words to explain why the hunt is so important for him, and the parting becomes an unsweet sorrow, even an angry one. "Why do we do what we do?" he asks. It is a great question. He has answered the scientific questions as directly as he can, and in his report of struggling to overcome many physical, emotional, and societal hurdles to find answers, he has given an indirect but satisfying answer to his personal why.
Monsters of the Permian, August 22, 2006
By now, almost everyone must be familiar with the discovery of the iridium concentrations at the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) boundary, and the Chicxulub impact crater, first reported in 1981, that appears to exactly the right age and the right size to have terminated most of the life on Earth, sixty-five million years ago. The author of "Gorgon" began his career with field work on the proof of the quick and terrible extinction at the K-T boundary–the death knell of the dinosaurs.
However, Dr. Ward found himself more and more intrigued by an even great extinction event that occurred 250 million years ago at the boundary of the Permian and the Triassic (P/T). Was it caused by another comet or meteor strike? Did the elimination of 95 % of Earth’s marine life and 70% of all land species proceed as quickly as at the K-T termination, or did it take place in pulses over a much longer period of time?
According to the author (and others), there is no credible, unambiguous evidence for an impact as is the case for the K-T extinction. What is more likely is that massive greenhouse gas emissions reduced oxygen availability, ultimately resulting in the collapse of marine ecosystems, and most of the land-based systems as well. This was possibly caused by volcanic eruptions on the supercontinent of Pangea, in what is now Siberia (the Siberian Traps).
In the final chapter of his book, "Resolution," the author puts forth two interesting observation-based theories: (1) the abundance of oxidized, reddish rock in the Triassic beds above the P/T boundary (about 50 million years worth) implies "…the oxygen in our atmosphere plunged to very low levels as it became tied up in the rocks…so low, in fact, that any poor human…would very quickly suffer from altitude sickness, even at sea level."; (2) on land at least, the near extinction of animals that didn’t use oxygen efficiently, including most but not all of the mammal-like reptiles that dominated the Permian. "Heat [greenhouse effect] and asphyxiation [were] the two agents of the long mysterious mass extinction."
Except for the last chapter, "Gorgon" is light on theory and heavy on field work and proof-of-concept. Here is how geologists, paleontologists, and other scientists interact in the field, braving the heat of South Africa’s Karoo Desert, the omnipresent ticks, flies, and puff adders, and the digestive challenges of bad water and mystery-meat pizza. Dr. Ward takes his readers not only on a trip through the lost world of the Permian, but also through an African culture that seems to be on the brink of chaos. He is a sensitive and at times acerbic observer of both present and deep past. "Gorgon" is a compelling, thoroughly readable story.
Adventure in the Karoo, October 3, 2004
Gorgon is a book much as one expects from Peter Ward, a multi faceted examination of what it takes to be a paleontologist, of what approach answers questions in paleontology, of what the evidence tells us, all mixed with the adventure of a life lived often in the field in a foreign culture. The book is therefore an excellent introduction for the young person with an interest in geology, earth history, or paleontology as a career, or for the individual of whatever age who is interested in the subject but has difficulty with the dry facts of science as generally presented in books and journals on the topic.
While I personally like to take my information "straight up" like those he composes with co-author Donald Brownlee, and without the biographical admixture of adventure, I did find the sociological information about South Africa very enlightening and enjoyed it. I am also once agained reconfirmed in my belief that the life of a field geologist is a rigorous one. More than anything, I now realize how very unsuited I would have been as either a geologist or a paleontologist. I enjoy having worked on my degree in geology, but I really am an armchair enthusiast.
I found the author’s late realization of the clues inherent to the red beds surprising, since their significance occurred to me almost immediately. This may possibly be because I live in the once iron rich state of Minnesota and the oxidation of iron in solution in the oceans that formed those beds was made quite clear in my own geology classes.
Among the findings that the author offered at the conclusion of the book, several were of interest to me. He suggests that the common finds of Lystrosaur may not be due to simple accident of preservation but reflect the fact that they were a common post Permian animal. Perhaps the Lystrosaurs had made it successfully through the bottleneck to increase in numbers at the expense of those who failed to survive whatever catastrophe had occurred.
The author also mentions that this animal had been known as a high altitude creature, successful where others were not by virtue of its specialized lungs. This led him to wonder if the common finding the the Lystrosaur might reflect a depletion of oxygen level and a movement of the animal into lower altitudes as competitors died out. He also opines the likelihood that the dinosaur and its relatives the birds became successful by virtue of similar lung changes accommodating lower oxygen levels early on, a very insightful proposal.
The notion that all these changes might have set life on a totally different pathway, one that ultimately led to us, is also quite clever. I know that others have suggested atmospheric oxygen content changes as an explanation for the size increase in animal life during the Jurassic, but this was suggested as an increase in content rather a decrease. Another decline in oxygen level, this time to our current level of 21%, has been proposed for the extinction of the megafauna of the Pleistocene. Clearly any major change in the proportion of atmospheric gases is going to effect any life that has accommodated itself to a narrowly defined set of conditions. Animals that are more tolerant of deprivation or have a wider tolerance for variation will out compete those that don’t. Given the pressures to which our present atmosphere is subject, whether by natural climate change or the effects of green house gases from fossel fuels and ozone depleters, it may not be too long before anaerobes come into their own again!