Faster recovery after mass extinctions

Mass extinctions have been the principal time markers in the Phanerozoic stratigraphic column since 19th century palaeontologists recognised sudden changeovers in the fossil record. Two close the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic Eras, two more end Periods (Ordovician and Triassic) and others mark Stage boundaries. Greatest focus has been on the magnitudes of each extinction, greatly assisted by the statistics compiled by the late Jack Sepkoski. The adaptive radiations that filled abandoned niches and restored and, in most cases, expanded diversity are equally interesting.  Such recoveries from depleted stocks of organisms have been of immense influence over biological evolution. Resulting from chance events, as far as the Earth’s biota are concerned, the families and species that arose would not otherwise have appeared: the most powerful blow to any notion that biological advances are in any way pre-ordained.

Until recently, it seemed that each recovery was an extremely protracted affair. Over 5 to 10 million years seemed to be the case for aftermaths of the largest extinctions. To a marked extent, analysing recoveries from the fossil record is not so easy as tying the great declines in diversity to a time. It is a matter of working out the rate at which new genera arose or originated through speciation, and that is affected by geographic biases in the fossil record.  They arise from less collecting in remote areas and variations in the volume of exposed strata in others.  Correcting the biases is possible to some extent, but that still leaves the challenge of statistical analysis. From an extraordinary expansion of analytical expertise, which extends to economists’ methods of understanding stock market trends and the flair of physicists, a very different story of restocking seems about to emerge. A technique called vector autoregression applied to faunal diversification corrected for biases suggests that recoveries were very much faster than previously thought, in fact almost immediate by comparison with the time-precision of the stratigraphic column (Lu, P.J. Motohiro Yogo, M and Marshall, C.R., 2006. Phanerozoic marine biodiversity dynamics in light of the incompleteness of the fossil record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 103, p. 2736-2739).

See also: Kerr, R.A. 2006.  Revised numbers quicken the pace of rebound from mass extinctions. Science, v. 311, p. 931.

Is the Cambrian Explosion real evidence for an evolutionary burst?

About 543 Ma ago, remains of organisms that secreted hard parts suddenly appear in the fossil record.  Most palaeontology has focussed on such easily fossilised organisms from the Phanerozoic Eon that began at that time. Whether or not the Cambrian Explosion was a truly significant event, bar the appearance of hard parts – that is quite a mystery in itself – is highlighted by the presence of members of almost all modern animal phyla in the Early Cambrian record. Did they all suddenly explode onto the scene at its outset, or were they around well beforehand as almost completely soft-bodied creatures? Comparative molecular biology of living animals, and the concept of molecular ‘clocks’ has for a while suggested that the origination of modern phyla was considerably earlier than the start of the Phanerozoic. Increasing the database on which such ideas can be based helps improve their precision and scope, assisted by novel methods of mathematical analysis. The 23 December 2005 issue of Science contained an analysis of more than 12 thousand amino acids involved in the genomes of members of 9 or 26 extant animal phyla (Rokas, A.. et al. 2005. Animal evolution and the molecular signature of radiations compressed in time. Science, v. 310, p. 1933-1938). Preliminary study suggests that indeed the early history of the metazoans was remarkably compressed in time, probably in the 50 million years after the ~600 Ma Snowball Earth event, and possibly within a few million years of the base of the Cambrian. However, tests of hypotheses based on such indirectly related data are notoriously difficult, and Rokas et al. have taken a bit of stick (Jermiin, L.S. et al. 2005. Is the ‘Big Bang’ in animal evolution real? Science, v. 310, p. 1910-1911). It seems yet more work on molecular biology of the remaining 17 phyla and a great deal of mathematical wrangling is yet to come.

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