The Earth’s First Apocalypse: Texas Red Beds, 285 Million Years Ago

January 7, 2009

At a dig site in North Texas, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is investigating the animals that would have died off when this first mass extinction event occurred. Recently, a production crew from the History Channel came along on-site – and their footage of Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s team airs tonight at 8 p.m. as part of a two hour special called (aptly) First Apocalypse.UPDATE: In case you missed it, the special re-airs locally Saturday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. and a few hours later, Sunday morning at 1 a.m. (Check your local listings.)

In this post, Dr. Bakker explores several extinction events, including the first, Permian extinction you’ll see featured on the History Channel tonight.

Big Hairy Elephant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Yogi


In the early 1800’s, paleontology astounded the world when fossils documented the phenomenon of mass extinctions, times when the whole menagerie of big terrestrial critters went extinct.

The first mass die-off that was discovered killed the gigantic mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, saber-tooth tigers and dozens of other large mammals. This extinction event occurred during the Ice Age. The Ice Age Event didn’t hit small species – if you were a vole, mole, rat, bat or chipmunk, your species had a good chance of surviving.

Today, we know that the extinction took place between 2 million and ten thousand years ago.


By the 1830s, a second giant extinction event was revealed. All the huge Dinosauria disappeared at the end of the Age of Reptiles. Small creatures – birds and salamanders, lizards and frogs, snakes and furry mammals – survived in great numbers.


Mass extinctions weren’t all negative. Dino-die-offs kick-started evolution in the survivors. From the little furry mammals who survived came a wonderful new evolutionary wave of big predators and herbivores – horses, rhinos, hippos, water buffalo, elephants, bears, tigers, cheetahs and wolves. This Darwinian bounce happened every time there was a catastrophic extinction.


Digging in oceanic strata during the mid-1800s showed yet another catastrophe, when the Permian Period ended. Most common species of marine life disappeared, including trilobites, corals, and many species of shellfish.

Die-offs struck the land too – most of the big land reptiles, who filled the role of Top Predator and Top Herbivore, died out. Many small species persisted and from these humble survivors came the next wave of big land animals, including the dinosaurs.


Many theories sprung up to explain the great die-offs: the agent of extinction was identified as:

sudden increases in earth temperatures, or

sudden decreases in temperature, or

changes in atmospheric gases, or

changes in humidity, or

abrupt rise of mountains, or

abrupt disappearance of mountains, or

draining away of shallow seas, or

increase in volcanic eruptions, or

sudden impacts of meteorites, or

invasion of foreign species from one continent to another.


Diadectes, side and top view. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

To sort through all the possible solutions, it would help to find the very first case when large land animals evolved and then died-off. North Central Texas preserves this earliest apocalypse in the red-stained rocks laid down in the Early Permian. This extinction was long before the event that struck at the Late Permian.

Beginning in 1877, Texas excavations showed how the earliest large land herbivores evolved. These plant-eating pioneers were wide-bodied, low-slung reptiles known as “Cross-Biters,” Diadectes. Diadectes and its kin were the first large land animals to acquire the wide molars and big guts needed to digest leaves and branches from terrestrial bushes and trees.

The members of the Diadectes Family were the commonest land herbivore for fifteen million years…..and then, suddenly, they went extinct. The pattern at this first die-off matches what we’ve seen in the other land extinctions – small species were far more successful in living through the event.


This first die-off opened niches for the survivors. New and spectacular large herbivores evolved from small ancestors. In the Texas Red Beds, we find super-wide-bodied caseid reptiles who reached weights of more than a half ton.

The wide-bodied caseid reptile. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker


The wide-bodied caseids flourished for millions of years in the Middle Permian – then, the second extinction struck. Caseids disappeared. Evolving into the gap were advanced mammal-like reptiles with thick bone foreheads. There were both giant carnivores (anteosaurs) and giant herbivores (keratocephs).

Keratocephus, having a bit of trouble with anteosaurus. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The Houston Museum continues digging in north Texas, where the Red Beds record the earliest waves of large land animal evolution and the first extinction events. Many mysteries remain. But one pattern seems confirmed:

Mass die-offs on land are targeted like smart bombs. If you’re a big herbivore or big carnivore, you have the highest probability of going extinct.

Learn more about the First Apocalypse, and see Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s paleontology team in action, tonight at 8 p.m. on The History Channel.

Authored By Bob Bakker

The Museum’s Curator of Paleontology, world-renowned Dr. Robert T. Bakker (or, as some call him, Bob) is the leader of the handful of iconoclastic paleontologists who rewrote the book on dinosaurs three decades ago. Along with other noted paleontologists, Bakker has changed the image of dinosaurs from slow-moving, slow-witted, cold-blooded creatures to — at least in some cases — warm-blooded giants well-equipped to dominate the Earth for 200 million years. Dr. Bakker can be found all over the globe, notably leading the Museum’s paleontology field program.

10 responses to “The Earth’s First Apocalypse: Texas Red Beds, 285 Million Years Ago”

  1. Will Baird says:

    First apocalypse is a little misleading, wouldn’t you say? The Devonian, Ordovician, Cambrian and Vendian/Ediacarian extinctions might feel a little ignored. 😉

  2. James Krefft says:

    I found the disease theory well argued and a refreshing bit of air in a stuffy area. Admitedly Paleontology is but a hobby, however I too have had doubts about the ‘Duke Nuke Em’ ending to the Dinos. A few thoughts. A disease epidemic can often kill off over 90% of a large land species. Deer for example often lose over 95% of a herd to a particularly mean pest. Moreover, the initial disease is only the start. If a huge % of a species is killed subsequent generations are far harder to sire, due to the decreased number of breeding pairs. Moreover, over time genetic degredation comes into play as the survivors of a disease epidemic end up suffering from inbreeding. Anyway great idea Doc!

  3. Vlad Basard says:

    I agree somewhat with James Krefft in his post but personally I think were looking to hard and to close for the answer. Perhaps, metaphorically speaking we are looking through a microscope when we should be looking through a satellite.

    Now I know most of you will want to blow this off but please take the time to think this through before you make a judgment.
    (And I do hope Bob reads these as I would like to hear his opinions on this theory).

    As bob said the Dinosaurs were already suffering a decline by the time of the KT boundary but I think the asteroid played a deciding factor in the ultimate outcome.

    When the asteroid hit it would have made it significantly harder for the dino’s to recover, but if the asteroids also caused some other side effects, one I think hasten been examined yet, then we can see the current outcome. Increase in volcanism, earthquakes, tidelwaves, etc. the normal stuff we have already heard. But what if when the asteroid hit it changed the earth’s gravity?

    Now stop and think about that, animals that were known to be larger started shrinking in size.
    Forced evolution, life adapts to its environment as long as something doesn’t kill it.
    I.e. that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

    Coupled with that and disease? It’s no wonder they died out. Or should I say evolved out?

    Bob I would love to hear your opinion.

  4. Jan SNOEP says:

    I have many arguments claiming, that red beds are not continental but representing periods of gigantic tides. There is abundant proof, that red coloring occurred many MY after sdimentation. All red bed periods showed mass extinctions. Recent research (MIT) demonstrates the occurrence of strong eccentric moon orbits in the past.Most continental sediments show signs of large tidal waves. A 12 page draft with references is available for interested persons.

  5. R. Richards says:

    I have an honest question… Paleontology is a fascination of mine, but the closest thing I have to actual training is the limited study of human anatomy- not exactly ideal for probing into the deeper mysteries of the past.

    Dr. Bakker’s idea of pathological extinction is probably one of the most logical and realistic I’ve heard, but it opens more questions than it provides answers. First of all, how long would it take for this lethal concoction of plagues to do significant damage to a variety of species? Even with multiple pathogens and mutation allowing cross species infections it would have to take quite some time for this scenario to run its course among all of the different fauna. I’m no expert in this regard, but just by taking the North American-Asian landbridges into account (and the extinction of the mega fauna in North America), it takes thousands, many thousands, of years, WITH human hunting, for megafauna to start vanishing. With the mass extinction leading to the KT, if I understand the facts properly, the dying might have been millions of years in the making.

    Now, as Dr. Bakker stated in the above, as the megafauna begins to vanish, the little critters of the world begin to take advantage of opened niches and evolution takes place, often quite rapidly. Wouldn’t the proof for the pathogen theory be in the rapid evolution of multiple species trying to fill vacant megafauna roles, only to peter out, presumably because of the tourisim potential of large size bringing the evolving megafauna into contact with unfamiliar pathogens? If tides and ocean levels were in fact unstable during this time period, pockets of rapidly evolving niche megafauna could constantly get cut down by diseases as land bridges appear. If, in a given 10 million year period we expect to find x species of large herbivore and we instead find x+y, I think it would lend a lot of credit to the pathogen extinction hypothesis.

    Again, I don’t understand much, and these questions are probably laughable, but I’m genuinely curious. My other question for this scenario is… would it be possible for some species of dinosaur to be put on a track of parallel evolution to birds in the mid to late cretaceous? I’ve seen depictions of the modern “more primitive” species of terrestrial birds, and the “more advanced” species of flying birds, and the novel idea that perhaps there were waves of dinosaur species that began to cross into the realm of aves at different times struck me.

  6. Steven says:

    What a great question. Dr. Bakker has taken the time to do a full length response to your question in a new blog.

  7. S. Sorrell says:

    From what I can gather, we need more fossil evidence that a particular insect had evolved the transfer mechanism to assist in this pathogen related decline leading to the KT event. Mosquito fossils are rare, and are insufficient for the associated time period based on what we gather as a “true” mosquito, with proboscis intact. Using what we know about mosquito evolution, we cannot match the insect at its cretaceous evolutionary state with its current pathogen spreading prowess.

    I consider at a guess, the real culprit of a possible Dino killing pathogen mechanism, The BIRDS…even recent looks into the famous Lucy T. Rex skull have raised the possibility of trichomonosis, and these “scars” on the lower jaw of T.Rex fossils are common. Damn dirty birds.

    Also a question…Where are the The best places in Kansas, accessible to the public, to find pterosaurs fossils? I’m having a hard time making a map.

  8. SARAH says:


  9. Futons says:

    It’s interesting to think even farther back than the dinosaurs as we know them. I would have loved to be able to actually see these creatures. It was a much different world back then.

  10. Gaston says:

    Years ago I heard an interview where the professor R.T. Bakker said that Comet was not responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, if the asteroid had been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, turtles and frogs also had to be extinguished.

    Your answer agrees with my experience, frogs and turtles in general do not survive small changes in temperature or conditions of their niches, we can now confirm what is happening to the frog “Arlequin” in Costa Rica.

    I don’t know the challenges in the past on the route of our solar system, perhaps the murderer is one or more asteroids or perhaps there are areas of the galaxy with large amounts of interstellar dust that periodically cools the planet.

    These conjectures unfortunately not explain the presence of a selective murderer. The extinction caused by periodic cataclysms, every 80 million years, they should first affect the frogs and turtles.

    I read an article from the BBC’s Jana Beris published on MSN. The article was written about an Israeli company (Nucleix) has developed a system for detecting whether the DNA sample is genuine or not.

    The article explained that DNA samples can be duplicated, however the copy is missing an enzyme called “metyl CH3 “, therefore there are limits to the process of DNA replication; the process of cell division, are also limited by telomeres.

    Telomeres do not play in the processes of DNA duplication, that causes the DNA polymerase in each new duplication is diminishing their ability to copy all the genes on a chromosome, until it can no longer duplicate it.

    Telomerase is present in protozoa, plants, insects, roundworms, mold, fungi, other vertebrates such as mice, life forms, including us, are descended from protozoa.

    There are genetic limitations to cell reproduction, which determine our death. I wonder if there may be in the genetic code, instructions for the degradation and ultimate extinction of one or more species.

    Of course I cannot make a rude and arbitrary amphibology such data. But I think the role of genes in the processes that cause a mass extinction and then I can explain the survival of frogs and turtles.

    Thanks for reading.

    Gaston Velasquez

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