What triggers mass extinctions? Study shows how invasive species stop new life

December 30, 2010, National Science Foundation
The ocean in Devonian times: is the past a prologue in biodiversity collapse? Credit: University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

An influx of invasive species can stop the dominant natural process of new species formation and trigger mass extinction events, according to research results published today in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study of the collapse of Earth's marine life 378 to 375 million years ago suggests that the planet's current ecosystems, which are struggling with biodiversity loss, could meet a similar fate.

Although Earth has experienced five major mass extinction events, the environmental crash during the Late Devonian was unlike any other in the planet's history.

The actual number of extinctions wasn't higher than the natural rate of , but very few new species arose.

"We refer to the Late Devonian as a mass extinction, but it was actually a biodiversity crisis," said Alycia Stigall, a scientist at Ohio University and author of the paper.

"This research significantly contributes to our understanding of species invasions from a deep-time perspective," said Lisa Boush, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of , which funded the research.&

"The knowledge is critical to determining the cause and extent of mass extinctions through time, especially the five biggest biodiversity crises in the history of life on Earth. It provides an important perspective on our current biodiversity crises."

The research suggests that the typical method by which new species originate--vicariance--was absent during this ancient phase of Earth's history, and could be to blame for the mass extinction.

Vicariance occurs when a population becomes geographically divided by a natural, long-term event, such as the formation of a mountain range or a new river channel, and evolves into different species.

New species also can originate through dispersal, which occurs when a subset of a population moves to a new location.

In a departure from previous studies, Stigall used phylogenetic analysis, which draws on an understanding of the tree of evolutionary relationships to examine how individual speciation events occurred.

She focused on one bivalve, Leptodesma (Leiopteria), and two brachiopods, Floweria and Schizophoria (Schizophoria), as well as a predatory crustacean, Archaeostraca.

These small, shelled marine animals were some of the most common inhabitants of the Late Devonian oceans, which had the most extensive reef system in Earth's history.

The seas teemed with huge predatory fish such as Dunkleosteus, and smaller life forms such as trilobites and crinoids (sea lilies).

The first forests and terrestrial ecosystems appeared during this time; amphibians began to walk on land.

As sea levels rose and the continents closed in to form connected land masses, however, some species gained access to environments they hadn't inhabited before.

The hardiest of these invasive species that could thrive on a variety of food sources and in new climates became dominant, wiping out more locally adapted species.

The invasive species were so prolific at this time that it became difficult for many new species to arise.

"The main mode of speciation that occurs in the geological record is shut down during the Devonian," said Stigall. "It just stops in its tracks."

Of the species Stigall studied, most lost substantial diversity during the Late Devonian, and one, Floweria, became extinct.

The entire marine ecosystem suffered a major collapse. Reef-forming corals were decimated and reefs did not appear on Earth again for 100 million years.

The giant fishes, trilobites, sponges and brachiopods also declined dramatically, while organisms on land had much higher survival rates.

The study is relevant for the current biodiversity crisis, Stigall said, as human activity has introduced a high number of invasive species into new ecosystems.

In addition, the modern extinction rate exceeds the rate of ancient extinction events, including the event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"Even if you can stop habitat loss, the fact that we've moved all these around the planet will take a long time to recover from because the high level of invasions has suppressed the speciation rate substantially," Stigall said.

Maintaining Earth's , she suggests, would be helped by focusing efforts and resources on protection of new species generation.

"The more we know about this process," Stigall said, "the more we will understand how to best preserve biodiversity."

Explore further: Prehistoric Fish Extinction Paved the Way for Modern Vertebrates

Related Stories

Mass extinction of species has begun

February 23, 2006

On March 9, world-renowned environmentalist Professor Norman Myers will deliver a lecture at Macquarie University in Sydney, announcing the beginnings of the largest mass extinction in 65 million years and discussing what ...

Threatened or invasive? Species' fates identified

June 13, 2008

A new ecological study led by a University of Adelaide researcher should help identify species prone to extinction under environmental change, and species that are likely to become a pest.

Study: Ecological effects of biodiversity loss underestimated

November 30, 2010

Children aren't the only youngsters who are picky eaters: More than half of all species are believed to change their diets -- sometimes more than once -- between birth and adulthood. And a new study by ecologists at Rice ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover new material to help power electronics

March 18, 2019

Electronics rule our world, but electrons rule our electronics. A research team at The Ohio State University has discovered a way to simplify how electronic devices use those electrons—using a material that can serve dual ...

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.4 / 5 (9) Dec 30, 2010
This research further supports the theory that humans are responsible for current extinctions. However, it’s not only just because we transport invasive organisms, but because WE are the invasive species.

Every ecosystem that we've entered has suffered a lost of biodiversity. First it was the large mammals that we used for food, then their predators. Now, with mass transportation and looming food scarcity, we are eating lower in the food chain with similar effects.

Even the human population, which began to diverge as it spread into isolated areas, is suffering a loss of diversity as modern technology mixes populations.

This research shows similar patterns have occurred before. Does it show a possible 'next stage' if the current human influence continues? Hopefully there can't be only us and manufactured food sources left behind in the future!
5 / 5 (7) Dec 30, 2010
Yes, Virginia, we are an invasive species, and there is mass extinction ahead.

Just in today's news: "250 billion plastic fragments in the Mediterranean"; "By 2025, India's population will surpass China's"; etc...

And forget all the "green" technologies. In sufficient numbers, humans will axphyxiate themselves by just far.ing.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 30, 2010
Isn't this "research" (I would call it speculation) ignoring the speciation mechanisms that are so obvious on the Galapagos? Mass extinctions open niches to what ever species are around to utilize them - affects far greater than even large numbers of invasive species. Habitat and resource competition in itself is a proven speciation enhancement mechanism in itself - i.e. Darwin's finches. Focusing on "one bivalve and two brachipod species" does not a well founded study make - nor the basis for any shift in evolutionary paradigms. This looks like a solution (cause) looking for a problem. The evidence that mass extinctions on the order of those caused by massive asteroid impacts were ever triggered by invasive species impacts isn't credible. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and there isn't even the beginnings of such proof here.
2 / 5 (8) Dec 30, 2010
Isn't this "research" (I would call it speculation) ignoring the speciation mechanisms that are so obvious on the Galapagos?
Galapagos... isnt that somewhere near Easter Island? New species need time to arise, even longer from scratch.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 30, 2010
Mass extinctions open niches to what ever species are around to utilize them

Historically true, but unless humans disappear from the equation, the extinctions will continue and there will be nothing left to make a comeback, as more and more habitat is squeezed by growing human populations.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 30, 2010
Perhaps we humans will become the food resource driving future speciation.

Already, bacteria and viruses are moving in on our species' increasing biomass. Not only that, but many are becoming "superbugs" capable of bypassing our technological defences. It's an arms race that is bound to produce ever more disease variety.

The future may look like "us", the "manufactured food" we eat, and the "superbugs" that feed on us and our food.

Ooo... nice.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.