That mass extinctions mark several fundamental boundaries in the stratigraphic column (late-Ordovician, late-Devonian, Permian-Triassic, Triassic-Jurassic and Cretaceous-Tertiary) seemed to have become a well established feature of geology, thanks to the vast compilation and analysis of marine and terrestrial organisms by the late John Sepkoski and David Raup. However, it is very much a numerological exercise matching extinctions, new arrivals and their precise timing. Although not exactly “lies, damned lies and statistics”, analysing the fossil record depends on both data and algorithms. A new crunching of Sepkoski and Raup’s data, by Richard Bambach and Andrew Knoll of Harvard University, casts doubt on two of the formerly outstanding extinctions. They see a distinction between true mass extinctions – lots of genera popping their collective corks very quickly, and mass depletions, when a more general rate of extinction fails to be matched by newly evolved taxa. According to Bambach and Kroll, the late-Devonian and end-Triassic events fall in the latter category, leaving only three “big ones”.
Palaeontologists seem quite relaxed about these demotions and an earlier degradation of the Cenomanian-Turonian extinction, but one wonders about those who have beavered away at possible causes. Impactophiles have congregated lately on both boundaries, studying signs of correlation with large cratering events (Woodleigh in Western Australia and Manicouagan in Canada, respectively). Because the fossil record has a great deal to do with where collectors have been (and that has usually been close to their home bases in Europe and North America), it is anthropogenically biased. So far, new collections from further afield have failed to numerically overcome this skew, but the demise of the late-Devonian event stems largely from recent work in China.
Personally, I fail to see the distinction. The failure of evolution to repopulate niches abandoned by extinct genera seems equally as odd as spikes in the rate of extinctions. However, I have always been worried that the humble graptolite’s disappearance at the end of the Silurian hasn’t been recognised as a sign of dreadful times. These meek and co-operative creatures spread far and wide as plankton throughout the Ordovician and Silurian, evolved with an unmatched enthusiasm, and yet failed to inherit the Earth as their meekness should have guaranteed. Still, few now seem concerned with the vast panoply of graptolitic thecae and stipes.
Source: Kerr, R.A. 2001. Paring down the Big Five mass extinctions. Science, v. 294, p. 2072-2073. Report on November 2001 Annual Meeting in Boston of the Geological Society of America.