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Concept: Timeline of extinctions


The population extinction pulse we describe here shows, from a quantitative viewpoint, that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions. Therefore, humanity needs to address anthropogenic population extirpation and decimation immediately. That conclusion is based on analyses of the numbers and degrees of range contraction (indicative of population shrinkage and/or population extinctions according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature) using a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species, and on a more detailed analysis documenting the population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species. We find that the rate of population loss in terrestrial vertebrates is extremely high-even in “species of low concern.” In our sample, comprising nearly half of known vertebrate species, 32% (8,851/27,600) are decreasing; that is, they have decreased in population size and range. In the 177 mammals for which we have detailed data, all have lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage). Our data indicate that beyond global species extinctions Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization. We describe this as a “biological annihilation” to highlight the current magnitude of Earth’s ongoing sixth major extinction event.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Mammal, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Extinctions can dramatically reshape biological communities. As a case in point, ancient mass extinction events apparently facilitated dramatic new evolutionary radiations of surviving lineages. However, scientists have yet to fully understand the consequences of more recent biological upheaval, such as the megafaunal extinctions that occurred globally over the past 50 kyr. New Zealand was the world’s last large landmass to be colonized by humans, and its exceptional archaeological record documents a vast number of vertebrate extinctions in the immediate aftermath of Polynesian arrival approximately AD 1280. This recently colonized archipelago thus presents an outstanding opportunity to test for rapid biological responses to extinction. Here, we use ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis to show that extinction of an endemic sea lion lineage (Phocarctos spp.) apparently facilitated a subsequent northward range expansion of a previously subantarctic-limited lineage. This finding parallels a similar extinction-replacement event in penguins (Megadyptes spp.). In both cases, an endemic mainland clade was completely eliminated soon after human arrival, and then replaced by a genetically divergent clade from the remote subantarctic region, all within the space of a few centuries. These data suggest that ecological and demographic processes can play a role in constraining lineage distributions, even for highly dispersive species, and highlight the potential for dynamic biological responses to extinction.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Ecology, Extinction, Dinosaur, Megafauna, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Biodiversity enhances many of nature’s benefits to people, including the regulation of climate and the production of wood in forests, livestock forage in grasslands and fish in aquatic ecosystems. Yet people are now driving the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. Human dependence and influence on biodiversity have mainly been studied separately and at contrasting scales of space and time, but new multiscale knowledge is beginning to link these relationships. Biodiversity loss substantially diminishes several ecosystem services by altering ecosystem functioning and stability, especially at the large temporal and spatial scales that are most relevant for policy and conservation.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Earth, Ecosystem, Nature, Extinction, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


To better predict the ecological and evolutionary effects of the emerging biodiversity crisis in the modern oceans, we compared the association between extinction threat and ecological traits in modern marine animals to associations observed during past extinction events using a database of 2497 marine vertebrate and mollusc genera. We find that extinction threat in the modern oceans is strongly associated with large body size, whereas past extinction events were either nonselective or preferentially removed smaller-bodied taxa. Pelagic animals were victimized more than benthic animals during previous mass extinctions but are not preferentially threatened in the modern ocean. The differential importance of large-bodied animals to ecosystem function portends greater future ecological disruption than that caused by similar levels of taxonomic loss in past mass extinction events.

Concepts: Biology, Oceanography, Extinction, Ocean, Marine biology, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Survivorship following major mass extinctions may be associated with a decrease in body size-a phenomenon called the Lilliput Effect. Body size is a strong predictor of many life history traits (LHTs), and is known to influence demography and intrinsic biological processes. Pronounced changes in organismal size throughout Earth history are therefore likely to be associated with concomitant genome-wide changes in evolutionary rates. Here, we report pronounced heterogeneity in rates of molecular evolution (varying up to $\sim$20-fold) across a large-scale avian phylogenomic data set and show that nucleotide substitution rates are strongly correlated with body size and metabolic rate. We also identify potential body size reductions associated with the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) transition, consistent with a Lilliput Effect in the wake of that mass extinction event. We posit that selection for reduced body size across the K-Pg extinction horizon may have resulted in transient increases in substitution rate along the deepest branches of the extant avian tree of life. This “hidden” rate acceleration may result in both strict and relaxed molecular clocks over-estimating the age of the avian crown group through the relationship between life history and demographic parameters that scale with molecular substitution rate. If reductions in body size (and/or selection for related demographic parameters like short generation times) are a common property of lineages surviving mass extinctions, this phenomenon may help resolve persistent divergence time debates across the tree of life. Furthermore, our results suggest that selection for certain LHTs may be associated with deterministic molecular evolutionary outcomes.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Earth, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Microbial carbonates commonly flourished following mass extinction events. The end-Devonian (Hangenberg) mass extinction event is a first-order mass extinction on the scale of the ‘Big Five’ extinctions. However, to date, it is still unclear whether global microbial carbonate proliferation occurred after the Hangenberg event. The earliest known Carboniferous stromatolites on tidal flats are described from intertidal environments of the lowermost Tournaisian (Qianheishan Formation) in northwestern China. With other early Tournaisian microbe-dominated bioconstructions extensively distributed on shelves, the Qianheishan stromatolites support microbial carbonate proliferation after the Hangenberg extinction. Additional support comes from quantitative analysis of the abundance of microbe-dominated bioconstructions through the Famennian and early Tournaisian, which shows that they were globally distributed (between 40° latitude on both sides of the palaeoequator) and that their abundance increased distinctly in the early Tournaisian compared to the latest Devonian (Strunian). Comparison of variations in the relative abundance of skeleton- versus microbe-dominated bioconstructions across the Hangenberg and ‘Big Five’ extinctions suggests that changes in abundance of skeletal bioconstructors may play a first-order control on microbial carbonate proliferation during extinction transitions but that microbial proliferation is not a general necessary feature after mass extinctions.

Concepts: Extinction, Dinosaur, Carboniferous, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions, Devonian, Silurian, Late Devonian extinction


The second largest Phanerozoic mass extinction occurred at the Ordovician-Silurian (O-S) boundary. However, unlike the other major mass extinction events, the driver for the O-S extinction remains uncertain. The abundance of mercury (Hg) and total organic carbon (TOC) of Ordovician and early Silurian marine sediments were analyzed from four sections (Huanghuachang, Chenjiahe, Wangjiawan and Dingjiapo) in the Yichang area, South China, as a test for evidence of massive volcanism associated with the O-S event. Our results indicate the Hg concentrations generally vary in parallel with TOC, and that the Hg/TOC ratios remain low and steady state through the Early and Middle Ordovician. However, Hg concentrations and the Hg/TOC ratio increased rapidly in the Late Katian, and have a second peak during the Late Hirnantian (Late Ordovician) that was temporally coincident with two main pulses of mass extinction. Hg isotope data display little to no variation associated with the Hg spikes during the extinction intervals, indicating that the observed Hg spikes are from a volcanic source. These results suggest intense volcanism occurred during the Late Ordovician, and as in other Phanerozoic extinctions, likely played an important role in the O-S event.

Concepts: Extinction, Dinosaur, Carboniferous, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions, Ordovician, Devonian, Silurian


Large environmental fluctuations often cause mass extinctions, extirpating species and transforming communities [1, 2]. While the effects on community structure are evident in the fossil record, demographic consequences for populations of individual species are harder to evaluate because fossils reveal relative, but not absolute, abundances. However, genomic analyses of living species that have survived a mass extinction event offer the potential for understanding the demographic effects of such environmental fluctuations on extant species. Here, we show how environmental variation since the Pliocene has shaped demographic changes in extant corals of the genus Orbicella, major extant reef builders in the Caribbean that today are endangered. We use genomic approaches to estimate previously unknown current and past population sizes over the last 3 million years. Populations of all three Orbicella declined around 2-1 million years ago, coincident with the extinction of at least 50% of Caribbean coral species. The estimated changes in population size are consistent across the three species despite their ecological differences. Subsequently, two shallow-water specialists expanded their population sizes at least 2-fold, over a time that overlaps with the disappearance of their sister competitor species O. nancyi (the organ-pipe Orbicella). Our study suggests that populations of Orbicella species are capable of rebounding from reductions in population size under suitable conditions and that the effective population size of modern corals provides rich standing genetic variation for corals to adapt to climate change. For conservation genetics, our study suggests the need to evaluate genetic variation under appropriate demographic models.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Population ecology, Population genetics, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Determining which biological traits influence differences in extinction risk is vital for understanding the differential diversification of life and for making predictions about species' vulnerability to anthropogenic impacts. Here I present a hierarchical Bayesian survival model of North American Cenozoic mammal species durations in relation to species-level ecological factors, time of origination, and phylogenetic relationships. I find support for the survival of the unspecialized as a time-invariant generalization of trait-based extinction risk. Furthermore, I find that phylogenetic and temporal effects are both substantial factors associated with differences in species durations. Finally, I find that the estimated effects of these factors are partially incongruous with how these factors are correlated with extinction risk of the extant species. These findings parallel previous observations that background extinction is a poor predictor of mass extinction events and suggest that attention should be focused on mass extinctions to gain insight into modern species loss.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Ecology, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions, Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event


There are few putative macroevolutionary trends or rules that withstand scrutiny. Here, we test and verify the purported tendency for animal clades to reach their maximum morphological variety relatively early in their evolutionary histories (early high disparity). We present a meta-analysis of 98 metazoan clades radiating throughout the Phanerozoic. The disparity profiles of groups through time are summarized in terms of their center of gravity (CG), with values above and below 0.50 indicating top- and bottom-heaviness, respectively. Clades that terminate at one of the “big five” mass extinction events tend to have truncated trajectories, with a significantly top-heavy CG distribution overall. The remaining 63 clades show the opposite tendency, with a significantly bottom-heavy mean CG (relatively early high disparity). Resampling tests are used to identify groups with a CG significantly above or below 0.50; clades not terminating at a mass extinction are three times more likely to be significantly bottom-heavy than top-heavy. Overall, there is no clear temporal trend in disparity profile shapes from the Cambrian to the Recent, and early high disparity is the predominant pattern throughout the Phanerozoic. Our results do not allow us to distinguish between ecological and developmental explanations for this phenomenon. To the extent that ecology has a role, however, the paucity of bottom-heavy clades radiating in the immediate wake of mass extinctions suggests that early high disparity more probably results from the evolution of key apomorphies at the base of clades rather than from physical drivers or catastrophic ecospace clearing.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Ecology, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions, Cambrian