Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

What Triggers a Mass Extinction?

11.04.2012
Caltech researchers say habitat loss and tropical cooling were to blame for mass extinction

The second-largest mass extinction in Earth's history coincided with a short but intense ice age during which enormous glaciers grew and sea levels dropped.

Although it has long been agreed that the so-called Late Ordovician mass extinction—which occurred about 450 million years ago—was related to climate change, exactly how the climate change produced the extinction has not been known.

Now, a team led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has created a framework for weighing the factors that might have led to mass extinction and has used that framework to determine that the majority of extinctions were caused by habitat loss due to falling sea levels and cooling of the tropical oceans.

The work—performed by scientists at Caltech and the University of Wisconsin, Madison—is described in a paper currently online in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers combined information from two separate databases to overlay fossil occurrences on the sedimentary rock record of North America around the time of the extinction, an event that wiped out about 75 percent of marine species alive then. At that time, North America was an island continent geologists call Laurentia, located in the tropics.
Comparing the groups of species, or genera, that went extinct during the event with those that survived, the researchers were able to figure out the relative importance of several variables in dictating whether a genus went extinct during a 50-million-year interval around the mass extinction.

"What we did was essentially the same thing you'd do if confronted with a disease epidemic," says Seth Finnegan, postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and lead author of the study. "You ask who is affected and who is unaffected, and that can tell you a lot about what's causing the epidemic."

As it turns out, the strongest predictive factors of extinction on Laurentia were both the percentage of a genus's habitat that was lost when the sea level dropped and a genus's ability to tolerate broader ranges of temperatures. Groups that lost large portions of their habitat as ice sheets grew and sea levels fell, and those that had always been confined to warm tropical waters, were most likely to go extinct as a result of the rapid climate change.

"This is the first really attractive demonstration of how you can use multivariate approaches to try to understand extinctions, which reflect amazingly complex suites of processes," says Woodward Fischer, an assistant professor of geobiology at Caltech and principal investigator on the study. "As earth scientists, we love to debate different environmental and ecological factors in extinctions, but the truth is that all of these factors interact with one another in complicated ways, and you need a way of teasing these interactions apart. I'm sure this framework will be profitably applied to extinction events in other geologic intervals."

The analysis enabled the researchers to largely rule out a hypothesis, known as the record-bias hypothesis, which says that the extinction might be explained by a significant gap in the fossil record, also related to glaciation. After all, if sea levels fell and continents were no longer flooded, sedimentary rocks with fossils would not accumulate. Therefore, the last record of any species that went extinct during the gap would show up immediately before the gap, creating the appearance of a mass extinction.

Finnegan reasoned that this record-bias hypothesis would predict that the duration of a gap in the record should correlate with higher numbers of extinctions—if a gap persisted longer, more groups should have gone extinct during that time, so it should appear that more species went extinct all at once than for shorter gaps. But in the case of the Late Ordovician, the researchers found that the duration of the gap did not matter, indicating that a mass extinction very likely did occur.

"We have found that the Late Ordovician mass extinction most likely represents a real pulse of extinction—that many living things genuinely went extinct then," says Finnegan. "It's not that the record went bad and we just don't recover them after that."

The team used data about North American fossils from the public Paleobiology Database as well as information about the sedimentary rock record from the Macrostrat Database developed by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Along with Fischer and Finnegan, additional coauthors of the paper, "Climate change and the selective signature of the late Ordovician mass extinction" are Shanan Peters and Noel Heim of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Finnegan will begin a new appointment at UC Berkeley in the fall. The work was supported by the Agouron Institute and the National Science Foundation.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier
Kimm Fesenmaier
kfesenma@caltech.edu

Deborah Williams-Hedges | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.caltech.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Live from the ocean research vessel Atlantis
13.12.2018 | National Science Foundation

nachricht NSF-supported scientists present new research results on Earth's critical zone
13.12.2018 | National Science Foundation

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Data use draining your battery? Tiny device to speed up memory while also saving power

The more objects we make "smart," from watches to entire buildings, the greater the need for these devices to store and retrieve massive amounts of data quickly without consuming too much power.

Millions of new memory cells could be part of a computer chip and provide that speed and energy savings, thanks to the discovery of a previously unobserved...

Im Focus: An energy-efficient way to stay warm: Sew high-tech heating patches to your clothes

Personal patches could reduce energy waste in buildings, Rutgers-led study says

What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...

Im Focus: Lethal combination: Drug cocktail turns off the juice to cancer cells

A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.

The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...

Im Focus: New Foldable Drone Flies through Narrow Holes in Rescue Missions

A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.

Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...

Im Focus: Topological material switched off and on for the first time

Key advance for future topological transistors

Over the last decade, there has been much excitement about the discovery, recognised by the Nobel Prize in Physics only two years ago, that there are two types...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

ICTM Conference 2019: Digitization emerges as an engineering trend for turbomachinery construction

12.12.2018 | Event News

New Plastics Economy Investor Forum - Meeting Point for Innovations

10.12.2018 | Event News

EGU 2019 meeting: Media registration now open

06.12.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Data use draining your battery? Tiny device to speed up memory while also saving power

14.12.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Tangled magnetic fields power cosmic particle accelerators

14.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

In search of missing worlds, Hubble finds a fast evaporating exoplanet

14.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>