Letter

Nature 454, 626-629 (31 July 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07032; Received 6 February 2008; Accepted 28 April 2008; Published online 15 June 2008

Environmental determinants of extinction selectivity in the fossil record

Shanan E. Peters1

  1. Department of Geology & Geophysics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA

Correspondence to: Shanan E. Peters1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S.E.P. (Email: peters@geology.wisc.edu).

The causes of mass extinctions and the nature of biological selectivity during extinction events remain central questions in palaeobiology. Although many different environmental perturbations have been invoked as extinction mechanisms1, 2, 3, it has long been recognized that fluctuations in sea level coincide with many episodes of biotic turnover4, 5, 6. Recent work supports the hypothesis that changes in the areas of epicontinental seas have influenced the macroevolution of marine animals7, 8, but the extent to which differential environmental turnover has contributed to extinction selectivity remains unknown. Here I use a new compilation of the temporal durations of sedimentary rock packages to show that carbonate and terrigenous clastic marine shelf environments have different spatio-temporal dynamics and that these dynamics predict patterns of genus-level extinction, extinction selectivity and diversity among Sepkoski's Palaeozoic and modern evolutionary faunae9. These results do not preclude a role for biological interactions or unusual physical events as drivers of macroevolution, but they do suggest that the turnover of marine shelf habitats and correlated environmental changes have been consistent determinants of extinction, extinction selectivity and the shifting composition of the marine biota during the Phanerozoic eon.

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