Scientist are now suggesting that an influx of mercury into the eco-system was the culprit likely involved in the Earths extinction 250 million years ago, when rapid climate change wiped out nearly all marine species and a majority of those on land.

Long before dinosaurs, when land formed one big continent about 250 million years ago, the majority of life in the ocean and on land was wiped out.

In that time scientist have uncovered a lot about the causes to that extinction, but now for the first time scientists have linked the massive extinction that took place during the end of the Permian to mercury.

“No one had ever looked to see if mercury was a potential culprit. This was a time of the greatest volcanic activity in Earth’s history and we know today that the largest source of mercury comes from volcanic eruptions,” says Dr. Steve Grasby, research scientist at Natural Resources Canada. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary and co-author of a paper published this month in the journal Geology.

“We estimate that the mercury released then could have been up to 30 times greater than today’s volcanic activity, making the event truly catastrophic.”

Lead author Dr. Hamed Sanei, research scientist at Natural Resources Canada and adjunct professor at the University of Calgary said that algae acts like a scavenger and buries the mercury in the sediment, mitigating the effect in the oceans, which explains an overload of mercury during the late Permian that contributing to the loss of 95 per cent of life in the sea.

“But in this case, the load was just so huge that it could not stop the damage,” Sanei said.

The authors concluded that volcanic eruptions burned though coal beds, releasing CO2 and other deadly toxins.

“We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions. This is a warning for us here on Earth today,” said Dr. Benoit Beauchamp, professor of geology at the University of Calgary and co-author.

While there has been a steady decline through regulations controlling mercury in North America, Canada has taken a lead role in reducing emissions internationally.