What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?

13 11 2019

(reproduced from The Conversation)

For more than 3.5 billion years, living organisms have thrived, multiplied and diversified to occupy every ecosystem on Earth. The flip side to this explosion of new species is that species extinctions have also always been part of the evolutionary life cycle.

But these two processes are not always in step. When the loss of species rapidly outpaces the formation of new species, this balance can be tipped enough to elicit what are known as “mass extinction” events.


Read more: Climate change is killing off Earth’s little creatures


A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

Since at least the Cambrian period that began around 540 million years ago when the diversity of life first exploded into a vast array of forms, only five extinction events have definitively met these mass-extinction criteria.

These so-called “Big Five” have become part of the scientific benchmark to determine whether human beings have today created the conditions for a sixth mass extinction.

An ammonite fossil found on the Jurassic Coast in Devon. The fossil record can help us estimate prehistoric extinction rates. Corey Bradshaw, Author provided

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Pickled niches

2 08 2011

Another fine contribution from Salvador Herrando-Pérez (see previous posts here, here, here and here).

Sometimes evolution fails to shape new species that are able to expand the habitat of their ancestors. This failure does not rein in speciation, but forces it to take place in a habitat that changes little over geological time. Such evolutionary outcomes are important to predict the distribution of groups of phylogenetically related species.

Those who have ever written a novel, a biography, or even a court application, will know that a termite-eaten photo or an old hand-written letter can help rebuild moments of our lives with surgical precision. Likewise, museums of natural sciences store historical biodiversity data of great value for modern research and conservation1.

A notable example is the study of chameleons from Madagascar by Chris Raxworthy and colleagues2. By collating 621 records of 11 species of the tongue-throwing reptiles, these authors subsequently concentrated survey efforts on particular regions where they discovered the impressive figure of seven new species to science, which has continued to expand3 (see figure below). The trick was to characterise the habitat at historical and modern chameleon records on the basis of satellite data describing climate, hydrology, topography, soil and vegetation, then extrapolate over the entire island to predict what land features were most likely to harbour other populations and species. This application of species distribution models4 supports the idea that the phenotypic, morphological and ecological shifts brought about by speciation can take place at slower rates than changes in the habitats where species evolve – the so-called ‘niche conservatism’ (a young concept with already contrasting definitions, e.g.,5-7).

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Life and death on Earth: the Cronus hypothesis

13 10 2009
Cronus

Cronus

Bit of a strange one for you today, but here’s a post I hope you’ll enjoy.

My colleague, Barry Brook, and I recently published a paper in the very new and perhaps controversial online journal , the Journal of Cosmology. Cosmology? According to the journal, ‘cosmology’ is:

“the study and understanding of existence in its totality, encompassing the infinite and eternal, and the origins and evolution of the cosmos, galaxies, stars, planets, earth, life, woman and man”.

The journal publishes papers dealing with ‘cosmology’ and is a vehicle for those who wish to publish on subjects devoted to the study of existence in its totality.

Ok. Quite an aim.

Our paper is part of the November (second ever) issue of the journal entitled Asteroids, Meteors, Comets, Climate and Mass Extinctions, and because we were the first to submit, we managed to secure the first paper in the issue.

Our paper, entitled The Cronus hypothesis – extinction as a necessary and dynamic balance to evolutionary diversification, introduces a new idea in the quest to find that perfect analogy for understanding the mechanisms dictating how life on our planet has waxed and waned over the billions of years since it first appeared.

Gaia

Gaia

In the 1960s, James Lovelock conceived the novel idea of Gaia – that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organism where life itself interacts with the physical environment to maintain conditions favourable for life (Gaia was the ancient Greeks’ Earth mother goddess). Embraced, contested, denounced and recently re-invigorated, the idea has evolved substantially since it first appeared. More recently (this year, in fact), Peter Ward countered the Gaia hypothesis with his own Greek metaphor – the Medea hypothesis. Essentially this view holds that life instead ‘seeks’ to destroy itself in an anti-Gaia manner (Medea was the siblicidal wife of Jason of the Argonauts). Ward described his Medea hypothesis as “Gaia’s evil twin”.

One can marvel at the incredible diversity of life on Earth (e.g., conservatively, > 4 million protists, 16600 protozoa, 75000-300000 helminth parasites, 1.5 million fungi, 320000 plants, 4-6 million arthropods, > 6500 amphibians, 10000 birds and > 5000 mammals) and wonder that there might be something in the ‘life makes it easier for life’ idea underlying Gaia. However, when one considers that over 99 % of all species that have ever existed are today extinct, then a Medea perspective might dominate.

Medea

Medea

Enter Cronus. Here we posit a new way of looking at the tumultuous history of life and death on Earth that effectively relegates Gaia and Medea to opposite ends of a spectrum. Cronus (patricidal son of Gaia overthrown by his own son, Zeus, and banished to Hades) treats speciation and extinction as birth and death in a ‘metapopulation’ of species assemblages split into biogeographic realms. Catastrophic extinction events can be brought about via species engineering their surroundings by passively modifying the delicate balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane – indeed, humans might be the next species to fall victim to our own Medean tendencies. But extinction opens up new niches that eventually elicit speciation, and under conditions of relative environmental stability, specialists evolve because they are (at least temporarily) competitive under those conditions. When conditions change again, extinction ensues because not all can adapt quickly enough. Just as all individuals born in a population must eventually die, extinction is a necessary termination.

We think the Cronus metaphor has a lot of advantages over Gaia and Medea. The notion of a community of species as a population of selfish individuals retains the Darwinian view of contestation; self-regulation in Cronus occurs naturally as a result of extinction modifying the course of future evolution. Cronus also makes existing mathematical tools developed for metapopulation theory amenable to broader lines of inquiry.

For example, species as individuals with particular ‘mortality’ (extinction) rates, and lineages with particular ‘birth’ (speciation) rates, could interact and disperse among ‘habitats’ (biogeographical realms). ‘Density’ feedback could be represented as competitive exclusion or symbioses. As species dwindle, feedbacks such as reduced community resilience that further exacerbate extinction risk (Medea-like phase), and stochastic fluctuation around a ‘carrying capacity’ (niche saturation) arising when environmental conditions are relatively stable is the Gaia-like phase. Our Cronus framework is also scale-invariant – it could be applied to microbial diversity on another organism right up to inter-planetary exchange of life (panspermia).

What’s the relevance to conservation? We’re struggling to prevent extinction, so understanding how it works is an essential first step. Without the realisation that extinction is necessary (albeit, at rates preferably slower than they are currently), we cannot properly implement conservation triage, i.e., where do we invest in conservation and why?

We had fun with this, and I hope you enjoy it too.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgBradshaw, C.J.A., & Brook, B.W. (2009). The Cronus Hypothesis – extinction as a necessary and dynamic balance to evolutionary diversification Journal of Cosmology, 2, 201-209 Other: http://journalofcosmology.com/Extinction100.html

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