The Permian-Triassic mass extinction is widely attributed to the global environmental changes caused by the eruption of the Siberian Traps. However, the precise temporal link between marine and terrestrial crises and volcanism is unclear. Here, we report anomalously high mercury (Hg) concentrations in terrestrial strata from southwestern China, synchronous with Hg anomalies in the marine Permian-Triassic type section. The terrestrial sediments also record increased abundance of fossil charcoal coincident with the onset of a negative carbon isotope excursion and the loss of tropical rainforest vegetation, both of which occurred immediately before the peak of Hg concentrations. The organic carbon isotope data show an ~5‰–6‰ negative excursion in terrestrial organic matter (bulk organic, cuticles, and charcoal), reflecting change in atmospheric CO2 carbon-isotope composition coincident with enhanced wildfire indicated by increased charcoal. Hg spikes provide a correlative tool between terrestrial and marine records along with carbon isotope trends. These data demonstrate that ecological deterioration occurred in tropical peatlands prior to the main marine mass extinction.

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