Evolutionary arms races between marine animals overhauled ocean ecosystems on scales similar to the mass extinctions triggered by global disasters, a new study shows.
Scientists at Umeå University in Sweden and the Florida Museum of Natural History used paleontological databases to build a multilayered computer model of the history of marine life over the last 500 million years. Their analysis of the fossil record closely echoed a seminal 1981 study by paleontologist J. John Sepkoski – with one key difference.
Sepkoski’s ground-breaking statistical work showed abrupt ocean-wide changes in biodiversity about 490 and 250 million years ago, corresponding to two mass extinction events. These events divided marine life into what he called “three great evolutionary faunas,” each dominated by a unique set of animals.
But the new model reveals a fourth.
The fierce fight for survival that played out between predatory marine animals and their prey about 250 to 66 million years ago may have been an equally powerful force, reshaping ocean diversity into what we see today. This third grand transition was much more gradual than its predecessors and driven by organisms, rather than external processes.
“What we learned is that not all major shifts in animal life have been related to mass extinction events,” said study lead author Alexis Rojas, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. Rojas is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Integrated Science Lab, a hub dedicated to interdisciplinary research at Umeå University.
Many scientists have long held the view that external factors such as volcanic activity, asteroid impacts or changes in climate are the primary drivers of major shifts in the Earth’s biosphere, said study co-author Michal Kowalewski, Rojas’ doctoral adviser and the Florida Museum Thompson Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology.
“The fossil record tells us that some of the key transitions in the history of life were rapid changes triggered by abrupt external factors. But this study shows that some of those major transitions were more gradual and may have been driven by biological interactions between organisms,” he said.
More information: Rojas, A., Calatayud, J., Kowalewski, M. et al. A multiscale view of the Phanerozoic fossil record reveals the three major biotic transitions. Commun Biol 4, 309 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-01805-y