Large igneous provinces (LIPs) are commonly associated with mass extinctions. However, the precise relations between LIPs and their impacts on biodiversity is enigmatic, given that they can be asynchronous. It has been proposed that the environmental impacts are primarily related to sill emplacement. Therefore, the structure of LIPs’ magma storage system is critical because it dictates the occurrence and timing of mass extinction. We use surface-wave tomography to image the lithosphere under the Permian Emeishan large igneous province (ELIP) in southwestern China. We find a northeast-trending zone of high shear-wave velocity (Vs) and negative radial anisotropy (Vsv > Vsh; v and h are vertically and horizontally polarized S waves, respectively) in the crust and lithosphere. We rule out the possibilities of rifting or orogenesis to explain these seismic characteristics and interpret the seismic anomaly as a mafic-ultramafic, dike-dominated magma storage system of the ELIP. We further propose that the anomaly represents a hidden hotspot track that was emplaced before the ELIP eruption. A zone of higher velocity but less-negative radial anisotropy, on the hotspot track but to the northeast of the eruption center in the Panxi region, reflects an elevated proportion of sills emplaced at the incipient stage of the ELIP. Liberation of poisonous gases by the early sill intrusions explains why the mid-Capitanian global biota crisis preceded the peak ELIP eruption by 2–3 m.y.

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