A map of the world as it appeared at the boundary between the Early and Middle Ordovician. (470 ma)
The Ordovician came to a close in a series of extinction events that, taken together, comprise the second largest of the five major extinction events in extinction events that, taken together, comprise the second largest of the five major extinction events in Earth's history in terms of percentage of genera that became extinct. The only larger one was the Permian–Triassic extinction event.
The extinctions occurred approximately 447–444 million years ago and mark the boundary between the Ordovician and the following Silurian Period. At that time all complex multicellular organisms lived in the sea, and about 49% of genera of fauna disappeared forever; brachiopods and bryozoans were greatly reduced, along with many Silurian Period. At that time all complex multicellular organisms lived in the sea, and about 49% of genera of fauna disappeared forever; brachiopods and bryozoans were greatly reduced, along with many trilobite, conodont and graptolite families.
The most commonly accepted theory is that these events were triggered by the onset of cold conditions in the late Katian, followed by an ice age, in the Hirnantian faunal stage, that ended the long, stable greenhouse conditions typical of the Ordovician.
The ice age was possibly not long-lasting. Oxygen isotopes in fossil brachiopods show its duration may have been only 0.5 to 1.5 million years. Other researchers (Page et al.) estimate more temperate conditions did not return until the late Silurian.
The late Ordovician glaciation event was preceded by a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide (from 7000 ppm to 4400 ppm). The dip was triggered by a burst of volcanic activity that deposited new silicate rocks, which draw CO2 out of the air as they erode. This selectively affected the shallow seas where most organisms lived. As the southern supercontinent Gondwana drifted over the South Pole, ice caps formed on it, which have been detected in Upper Ordovician rock strata of North Africa and then-adjacent northeastern South America, which were south-polar locations at the time.
As glaciers grew, the sea level dropped, and the vast shallow intra-continental Ordovician seas withdrew, which eliminated many ecological niches. When they returned, they carried diminished founder populations that lacked many whole families of organisms. They then withdrew again with the next pulse of glaciation, eliminating biological diversity with each change. Species limited to a single epicontinental sea on a given landmass were severely affected. Tropical lifeforms were hit particularly hard in the first wave of extinction, while cool-water species were hit worst in the second pulse.
Those species able to adapt to the changing conditions survived to fill the ecological niches left by the extinctions.
At the end of the second event, melting glaciers caused the sea level to rise and stabilise once more. The rebound of life's diversity with the permanent re-flooding of continental shelves at the onset of the Silurian saw increased biodiversity within the surviving Orders.
An alternate extinction hypothesis suggested that a ten-second gamma-ray burst could have destroyed the ozone layer and exposed terrestrial and marine surface-dwelling life to deadly ultraviolet radiation and initiated global cooling.
Recent work considering the sequence stratigraphy of the Late Ordovician argues that the mass extinction was a single protracted episode lasting several hundred thousand years, with abrupt changes in water depth and sedimentation rate producing two pulses of last occurrences of species.