A Massacre in Mercury

Submerged beneath sediments

of ancient ash and bone,

the variety of absence

suggests the magnitude of loss;

high-precision ageing

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

cellular structure;

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,

mainlining mercury

to meet the rising heat.

An eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby (this image is in the public domain).

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:

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