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Cycles in fossil diversity


It is well known that the diversity of life appears to fluctuate during the course of the Phanerozoic, the eon during which hard shells and skeletons left abundant fossils (0–542 million years ago). Here we show, using Sepkoski's compendium1 of the first and last stratigraphic appearances of 36,380 marine genera, a strong 62 ± 3-million-year cycle, which is particularly evident in the shorter-lived genera. The five great extinctions enumerated by Raup and Sepkoski2 may be an aspect of this cycle. Because of the high statistical significance we also consider the contributions of environmental factors, and possible causes.

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We thank J. Levine, W. Alvarez, D. Shimabukuro, R. Ernst, M. Manga and D. O'Connor for discussions and suggestions. This work was supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and the Folger Foundation.

Author information

Correspondence to Richard A. Muller.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods

This file describes the techniques used in constructing the diversity curve and assessing the statistical significance of the peaks in the Fourier spectrum. It also demonstrates that alternative techniques suggested by other authors do not change the central conclusion of the paper. (PDF 161 kb)

Supplementary Discussion

This file provides information on originations and extinctions and demonstrates that both show a 62 Myr cycle, though neither does so as strongly as diversity itself. (PDF 60 kb)

Supplementary Tables

These tables provide numerical data on the time scale, diversity, extinction, origination, and the statistical analysis. This data can be used for further study or for reconstructing our analysis. (XLS 702 kb)

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Further reading

Figure 1: Genus diversity.
Figure 2: Diversity of short-lived and long-lived genera.


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