Background and Mass Extinctions: The Alternation of Macroevolutionary Regimes

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Science  10 Jan 1986:
Vol. 231, Issue 4734, pp. 129-133
DOI: 10.1126/science.231.4734.129


Comparison of evolutionary patterns among Late Cretaceous marine bivalves and gastropods during times of normal, background levels of extinction and during the end-Cretaceous mass extinction indicates that mass extinctions are neither an intensification of background patterns nor an entirely random culling of the biota. During background times, traits such as planktotrophic larval development, broad geographic range of constituent species, and high species richness enhanced survivorship of species and genera. In contrast, during the, end-Cretaceous and other mass extinctions these factors were ineffectual, but broad geographic deployment of an entire lineage, regardless of the ranges of its constituent species, enhanced survivorship. Large-scale evolutionary patterns are evidently shaped by the alternation of these two macroevolutionary regimes, with rare but important mass extinctions driving shifts in the composition of the biota that have little relation to success during the background regime. Lineages or adaptations can be lost during mass extinctions for reasons unrelated to their survival values for organisms or species during background times, and long-term success would require the chance occurrence within a single lineage of sets of traits conducive to survivorship under both regimes.

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