The mainstay of geobiologists’ efforts to chart the timing and pace of mass extinctions and diversification since 1997 has been the monumental collation of information in fossil collections undertaken by the late Jack Sepkoski from the 1980s until shortly before his death in 1999. It was his plotting of marine fossil genera numbers against their time ranges that first quantified the ‘Big Five’ and lesser mass extinctions, and the course of re-diversification that followed in their wake. One problem that Sepkoski was unable to account for was the inherent biases in collections: under-representation of earlier genera than younger ones; different representation from different areas partly because developed-world collections are larger than those from the majority world and partly because modern diversity changes with latitude; and varying preservation of less-substantial organisms. Well aware of the shortcomings of his initial compilations, Sepkoski with others set up the Palaeobiology Database (PBDB) that now encompasses almost 100 thousand collections. Sadly, Sepkoski did not live to analyse this record with statistical methods that lessen the influence of bias, but one of his successors has done just that (Alroy, J. The shifting balance of diversity among major marine animal groups. Science, v. 329, p. 1191-1194). Alroy’s approach sets out to represent the rare with a fair weighting relative to common groups of organisms, using a complex multivariate method called ‘shareholder’ sampling, which corrects some of the artefacts in Sepkoski’s work and earlier manipulation of the PBDB.
One important feature is that Alroy’s method does not assume that all groups follow the same ‘rules’ of diversification and adaptive radiation, particularly after mass extinctions. The upshot is a history with ups and downs, but not such a prominent growth in diversity in the late-Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras as that in Sepkoski’s original compilation, although life did become richer. For someone, like me, who has not followed the developments since Sepkoski’s original work, there is another significant difference. There are 7 or 8 significant falls in diversity rather than 5. The Triassic-Jurassic boundary no longer shows a mass extinction, but the opposite. Major extinctions show up for the mid-Carboniferous, mid- and end-Jurassic and the Oligocene, where none were noticeable in the original plots by Sepkoski. Finally diversity peaks in the Siluro-Devonian and the Permian figure as prominently as that of the late-Cretaceous. Clearly, rules are few and one that was almost an assumption, that diversification of marine life after mass extinctions was exponential, is no longer borne out. Whether or not this new approach will bear fruit in refining or redefining the ecological dynamics that shaped and continue to shape life on Earth remains to be seen. It is tempting to be a bit cynical: is it all punctuated chaos?
Comet impacts’ candidature for origin of life
Most researchers concerned with the origin of life acknowledge that some preparatory organic chemicals would have been required, whose origin Darwin ascribed to a ‘warm, little pool’, and Haldane and Oparin to electrical discharges in the early atmosphere; both lines having been followed-up in practice by more recent scholars. A variety of biologically useful chemical ‘building blocks’ have also been recognised in comets, some meteorites – carbonaceous chondrites – and even in interstellar dust clouds. So one school looks to their supply from outside the Earth system. One possibility has had more scanty attention – the effects of impacts, as the power involved seems overwhelming for the survival of delicate organic molecules. Nir Goldman and his colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have had a second look at this unlikely scenario (Goldman, N. et al. 2010. Synthesis of glycine-containing complexes in impacts of comets on early Earth. Nature Chemistry, v. 2, p. 949–954). Their approach has been to examine the implications of impact shock at likely collision speeds followed by post-shock expansion on mixtures of water, ammonia, carbon monoxide and dioxide, and methanol that are almost guaranteed in the make-up of most cometary ices. Their modelling suggests that carbon-nitrogen bonds form under shock conditions in long chain compounds. In the aftermath of huge collision shock the impact products undergo rapid expansion and cooling during which the chains can break down to simpler molecules, including some akin to amino acids such as glycene. The bombardment of Earth in the Hadean Eon (4.5-3.8 Ga) involved huge masses of material, almost certainly some delivered by icy comets that would have greatly increased the amount of water and the number of CHON compounds in the early Earth’s outer parts.