The vast majority of species that have ever lived went extinct sometime other than during one of the great mass extinction events. In spite of this, mass extinctions are thought to have outsized effects on the evolutionary history of life.
While part of this effect is certainly due to the extinction itself, I here consider how the aftermaths of mass extinctions might contribute to the evolutionary importance of such events.
Following the mass loss of taxa from the fossil record are prolonged intervals of ecological upheaval that create a selective regime unique to those times.
The pacing and duration of ecosystem change during extinction aftermaths suggests strong ties between the biosphere and geosphere, and a previously undescribed macroevolutionary driver - earth system succession. Earth system succession occurs when global environmental or biotic change, as occurs across extinction boundaries, pushes the biosphere and geosphere out of equilibrium.
As species and ecosystems re-evolve in the aftermath, they change global biogeochemical cycles - and in turn, species and ecosystems - over timescales typical of the geosphere, often many thousands to millions of years.
Earth system succession provides a general explanation for the pattern and timing of ecological and evolutionary change in the fossil record. Importantly, it also suggests that a speed limit might exist for the pace of global biotic change after massive disturbance - a limit set by geosphere-biosphere interactions.
For mass extinctions, earth system succession may drive the ever-changing ecological stage on which species evolve, restructuring ecosystems and setting long-term evolutionary trajectories as they do.
- Life in the Aftermath of Mass Extinctions. Hull P. Curr Biol. 2015 Oct 5;25(19):R941-52. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.053. Review. PMID: 26439357
- Rarity in mass extinctions and the future of ecosystems. Hull PM, Darroch SA, Erwin DH. Nature. 2015 Dec 17;528(7582):345-51. doi: 10.1038/nature16160. PMID: 26672552