Evolutionary 'speed limit' governs how quickly life bounces back after extinction

January 04, 2002

Biodiversity recovers more slowly than thought

The 500-million-year history of life on Earth is a series of booms and busts. But while the busts, or extinctions, can be either sudden or gradual, the booms, or diversifications, of new organisms rarely occur quickly, according to a new study by a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. A paper on the subject appears in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

"This research has profound implications for our ongoing impact on Earth's fragile biotic communities and ecosystems," says Rich Lane, program director in NSF's division of earth sciences, which funded the research.

A statistical analysis of the rates of extinction and origination in the fossil record shows that life seldom rebounds rapidly from an extinction. The results imply that the diversification of life obeys "speed limits" set by evolutionary processes, said study author James Kirchner of UC-Berkeley.

"There seem to be biological mechanisms that limit diversification of new organisms and control which ones become successful enough to persist," he said. "Biodiversity is slow to recover after an extinction."

This apparent speed limit on the rate at which surviving organisms evolve and diversify has major implications for present- day extinctions.

"If we substantially diminish biodiversity on Earth, we can't expect the biosphere to just bounce back. It doesn't do that. The process of diversification is too slow," Kirchner said. "The planet would be biologically depleted for millions of years, with consequences extending not only beyond the lives of our children's children, but beyond the likely lifespan of the entire human species."

Kirchner has been mining a fossil database created by the late University of Chicago paleontologist Jack Sepkoski, who catalogued the genera and families of fossil marine animals over the past 530 million years, from the Cambrian to the present. Using a technique called spectral analysis, Kirchner has looked for patterns in the rates at which new organisms appear or disappear.

Last year Kirchner and colleague Anne Weil reported that the Earth needs, on average, about 10 million years to recover from global extinctions -- whether they involve the loss of most life on Earth or wipe out far fewer species. This was much longer than most scientists thought. The new results come from asking a related question: How do rates of extinction and diversification vary, and how are they related? This is important because, if rapid diversification is possible, biodiversity might be able to rebound quickly from a global extinction. Kirchner's analysis found that extinction rates and diversification rates are about equally variable over long spans of geological time. Over shorter periods, however, diversification rates vary much less than extinction rates do. That means that evolution doesn't accelerate quickly in response to rapid bursts of extinction.

One possible explanation for why diversification takes so long to rev up after an extinction is that extinction doesn't just eliminate species or groups of species, but takes away ecological niches. It eliminates both organisms and the roles those organisms played in the ecosystem. Recovery thus becomes more complicated. "This shows that extinction is not like knocking chess pieces off a chessboard, with the empty squares ready for you to plunk down new pieces," Kirchner said.

"Extinction is more like knocking down a house of cards. You only have places to put new cards as you rebuild the structure of the house."
-end-
Program contact:
H. Richard Lane
(703) 292-8551/hlane@nsf.gov

National Science Foundation

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