Mass extinctions have played many evolutionary roles, involving differential survivorship or selectivity of taxa and traits, the disruption or preservation of evolutionary trends and ecosystem organization, and the promotion of taxonomic and morphological diversifications–often along unexpected trajectories–after the destruction or marginalization of once-dominant clades. The fossil record suggests that survivorship during mass extinctions is not strictly random, but it often fails to coincide with factors promoting survival during times of low extinction intensity. Although of very serious concern, present-day extinctions have not yet achieved the intensities seen in the Big Five mass extinctions of the geologic past, which each removed >=50% of the subset of relatively abundant marine invertebrate genera. The best comparisons for predictive purposes therefore will involve factors such as differential extinction intensities among regions, clades, and functional groups, rules governing postextinction biotic interchanges and evolutionary dynamics, and analyses of the factors that cause taxa and evolutionary trends to continue unabated, to suffer setbacks but resume along the same trajectory, to survive only to fall into a marginal role or disappear (“dead clade walking”), or to undergo a burst of diversification. These issues need to be addressed in a spatially explicit framework, because the fossil record suggests regional differences in postextinction diversification dynamics and biotic interchanges. Postextinction diversifications lag far behind the initial taxonomic and morphological impoverishment and homogenization; they do not simply reoccupy vacated adaptive peaks, but explore opportunities as opened and constrained by intrinsic biotic factors and the ecological and evolutionary context of the radiation.
Source: PNAS, May 8, 2001, vol. 98, no. 10, 5393-5398