Courtesy Mark RyanExtinction is a fact of life. Species rise up, consume energy, reproduce, radiate to fill their range, and die off. It happens all the time. In fact, nearly 99% of all creatures that have ever lived on Earth have gone extinct. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the cause for extinction is minor – a subtle change in the environment such as increased competition for a food source or the introduction of a harmful contaminate or virus. Other times it can be more heavy-handed, like when a giant asteroid hurls in from outer space and slams into the planet sending the biosphere into a tizzy, and wiping out entire faunas. Either way it sucks big time.
But now there may be a third, more insidious reason. Extinction could be built into the genes of some unfortunate creatures, and according to the new study, it may be get passed on as an ancestral species branches out into new ones. Meaning extinction is a family affair.
The research team, composed of Kaustuv Roy of the University of California, Gene Hunt from the Smithsonian Institute, and David Jablonski of the University of Chicago, studied a whole gamut of extinction patterns in shelled marine animals such as clams, mussels and scallops. Their paper, which appeared recently in the journal Science, suggests that propensity for extinctions could be passed on through the whole groups of species that share common ancestors.
"Biologists have long suspected that the evolutionary history of species and lineages play a big role in determining their vulnerability to extinction, with some branches of the tree of life being more extinction-prone than others," said Roy, a biology professor at UC San Diego.
"Background extinctions" are the normal extinction rates that occur between major extinction events (e. g. killer asteroids), and usually don’t include those caused by human activity. (I don’t see why not – are we not part of Nature?) Anyway, when the team analyzed ‘background rates” from the Jurassic to the present they were struck by how some of the marine species with the highest rate of extinction during those “normal” times were also the most vulnerable (along with their close relatives) during major extinction events.
"Big extinctions have a filtering effect. They tend to preferentially cull the more vulnerable lineages, leaving the resistant ones to proliferate afterwards," Hunt said.
This means extinction isn't as random as we’d like to think, and actually tends to affect entire genera not just species within them. These clustered extinctions chop off larger branches from the family tree and cut deeper into the lineage history.
"Now we know that such differential loss is not restricted to extinctions driven by us but is a general feature of the extinction process itself," Roy said.
The study, according to evolutionary biologist Charles Marshall of Harvard University, shows how fossils are an important record of evolution’s workings.
"Only by analyzing the past do we get a direct sense of the rules by which evolution has worked and will continue to work,” he said.