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Environmental determinants of extinction selectivity in the fossil record


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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Figure 1: Palaeozoic and modern evolutionary fauna genus diversity and extinction.
Figure 2: Carbonate and siliciclastic macrostratigraphy.
Figure 3: First differences in evolutionary fauna extinction rates versus environmental truncation rates.


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I thank M. Foote for discussion. M. Foote, W. Kiessling and B. Wilkinson read the manuscript. I also acknowledge the donors of the American Chemical Society and US National Science Foundation EAR-0544941 for financial support.

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Correspondence to Shanan E. Peters.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures S1 -S7 and their explanatory captions as well as Supplementary Tables S1-S3. All of these materials supplement the main text and are referred to therein. (PDF 2660 kb)

Supplementary Table 4

The file contains Supplementary Table 4. This tab-delimited text file contains the raw data used in this study. Columns are as follows: • stage, interval abbreviation followed by Sepkoski • date, age at interval base in millions of years before present • carbonate_q, carbonate truncation rate measured per-package, per-interval • clastic_q, siliciclastic truncation rate measured per-package, per-interval • pzq, Palaezoic EF extinction rate measured per-genus per-interval • mdq, Modern EF extinction rate measured per-genus per-interval • pz_q_opt, optimized extinction rates for Palaeozoic EF • md_q_opt, optimized extinction rates for Modern EF • Napzq, rates of Palaeozoic EF extinction from Sepkoski•s compendium for North American genera • Namdq, rates of Modern EF extinction from Sepkoski•s compendium for North American genera (XLS 19 kb)

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Peters, S. Environmental determinants of extinction selectivity in the fossil record. Nature 454, 626–629 (2008).

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