There have been five mass extinctions in Earth's history

When did the "Big Five" mass extinctions happen, and what were their causes?

There have been five big mass extinctions in Earth's history – these are called the "Big Five". Understanding the reasons and timelines of these events is important to understand the speed and scale of species extinctions today.

When and why did these mass extinction events happen?

What is a mass extinction?

First, we must be clear on what we mean by "mass extinction". Extinctions are a normal part of evolution: they occur naturally and periodically over time.1

There’s a natural background rate to the timing and frequency of extinctions: 10% of species are lost every million years, 30% every 10 million years, and 65% every 100 million years.2 It would be wrong to assume that species going extinct is out of line with what we would expect. Evolution occurs through the balance of extinction – the end of species – and speciation – the creation of new ones.

Extinctions occur periodically at what we would call the "background rate". We can therefore identify periods of history when extinctions were happening much faster than this background rate – this would tell us that there was an additional environmental or ecological pressure creating more extinctions than we would expect.

However, mass extinctions are periods with much higher extinction rates than normal. They are defined by both magnitude and rate. Magnitude is the percentage of species that are lost. Rate is how quickly this happens. These metrics are inevitably linked, but we need both to qualify as a mass extinction.

In a mass extinction, at least 75% of species go extinct within a relatively (by geological standard) short period of time.3 Typically less than two million years.

The five mass extinctions

There have been five mass extinction events in Earth’s history, at least since 500 million years ago. We know very little about extinction events in the Precambrian and early Cambrian earlier, which predate this.4 These are called the "Big Five" for obvious reasons.

In the chart, we see the timing of events in Earth’s history.5 It shows the changing extinction rate (measured as the number of families that went extinct per million years). Again, note that this number was never zero: background extinction rates were low – typically less than 5 families per million years – but ever-present.

We see the spikes in extinction rates marked as the five events:

  1. End Ordovician (444 million years ago; mya)
  2. Late Devonian (360 mya)
  3. End Permian (250 mya)
  4. End Triassic (200 mya) – many people mistake this as the event that killed off the dinosaurs. But in fact, they were killed off at the end of the Cretaceous period – the fifth of the "Big Five".
  5. End Cretaceous (65 mya) – the event that killed off the dinosaurs.

Finally, at the end of the timeline, we have the question of what will come. Perhaps we are headed for a sixth mass extinction. But we are currently far from that point.

There are a range of trajectories that the extinction rate could take in the decades and centuries to follow; which one we follow is determined by us.

What caused the five mass extinctions?

All of the "Big Five" were caused by some combination of rapid and dramatic changes in climate, combined with significant changes in the composition of environments on land or the ocean (such as ocean acidification or acid rain from intense volcanic activity).

In the table here, I detail the proposed causes for each of the five extinction events.6

Extinction Event


Percentage of species lost

Cause of extinction

End Ordovician



Intense glacial and interglacial periods created large sea-level swings and moved shorelines dramatically. The tectonic uplift of the Appalachian mountains created lots of weathering, sequestration of CO2, and with it, changes in climate and ocean chemistry.

Late Devonian



Rapid growth and diversification of land plants generated rapid and severe global cooling.

End Permian



Intense volcanic activity in Siberia. This caused global warming. Elevated CO2 and sulfur (H2S) levels from volcanoes caused ocean acidification, acid rain, and other changes in ocean and land chemistry.

End Triassic



Underwater volcanic activity in the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) caused global warming and a dramatic change in the chemical composition of the oceans.

End Cretaceous



Asteroid impact in Yucatán, Mexico. This caused a global cataclysm and rapid cooling. Some changes may have already pre-dated this asteroid, with intense volcanic activity and tectonic uplift.


  1. Jablonski D (1986) Mass and background extinctions: the alternation of macroevolutionary regimes. Science 231:129–133

  2. Raup DM (1991) A kill curve for Phanerozoic marine species. Paleobiology. 17:37–48.

  3. We can see a 75% reduction in species in two ways: high extinction or very low speciation rates. If speciation – the creation of new species – slows down a lot, the extinction rate does not need to be as high as we would expect in order to deplete species numbers by 75%. These events are sometimes called "mass depletions" but are treated the same way as mass extinctions.

  4. Jenkins RJF (1989) The supposed terminal Precambrian extinction event in relation to the Cnidaria. Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Paleontologists 8:307–317.

  5. This data and detail comes from multiple sources:

    Barnosky, A. D., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G. O., Swartz, B., Quental, T. B., ... & Ferrer, E. A. (2011). Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature, 471(7336), 51-57.

    McCallum, M. L. (2015). Vertebrate biodiversity losses point to a sixth mass extinction. Biodiversity and Conservation, 24(10), 2497-2519.

    Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

  6. Barnosky, A. D., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G. O., Swartz, B., Quental, T. B., ... & Ferrer, E. A. (2011). Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?. Nature, 471(7336), 51-57.

Cite this work

Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this article, please also cite the underlying data sources. This article can be cited as:

Hannah Ritchie (2022) - “There have been five mass extinctions in Earth's history” Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

BibTeX citation

    author = {Hannah Ritchie},
    title = {There have been five mass extinctions in Earth's history},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2022},
    note = {}
Our World in Data logo

Reuse this work freely

All visualizations, data, and code produced by Our World in Data are completely open access under the Creative Commons BY license. You have the permission to use, distribute, and reproduce these in any medium, provided the source and authors are credited.

The data produced by third parties and made available by Our World in Data is subject to the license terms from the original third-party authors. We will always indicate the original source of the data in our documentation, so you should always check the license of any such third-party data before use and redistribution.

All of our charts can be embedded in any site.