Submerged beneath sediments
of ancient ash and bone,
the variety of absence
suggests the magnitude of loss;
unearthing fountains that
loom above the scene of the crime.
Living mountains that
smother the air
and wilfully suck the blame
from prying, pointing fingers.
Buried deep in the records
of this geological cold case
tiny spores reveal new lines of enquiry,
laid out on marble slabs
their stress responses shimmer
below sterile laboratory lights.
Routine analysis exposing
abundant changes to
a surreptitious switchblade
between the chromosomes.
Sifting through the evidence
the perpetrator remains,
their modus operandi
shifting from unsubtle suffocation
to mediated execution.
Fragile ferns feeding volcanic vitriol
across a tangled web of chains,
to meet the rising heat.
This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that mercury poisoning may have been partly responsible for a mass extinction event on Earth around 200 million years ago.
At the end of the Triassic period, fossil records show that approximately three out of four species disappeared. The major cause for this catastrophe has previously been attributed to the onset of large-scale volcanic activity, and the subsequent emissions of greenhouse gases (during these volcanic eruptions) that resulted in abrupt climate change. However, new research has shown that these eruptions resulted in other effects that also need to be taken into account.
By looking at fern spores found in sediment samples from this period of mass extinction, the researchers from this study have shown that there was a large accumulation of mercury in these ancient ferns. The spores that were examined in this study contained a large number of cells that were damaged and mutated as a result of mercury poisoning. As mercury is accumulated in the food chain, this research suggests that other species also probably suffered from mercury poisoning as well, and that the release of mercury (and other toxins) from large-scale volcanic activity needs to be considered as a partial cause for the end-Triassic mass extinction event.
An audio version of this poem can be heard here: