A new study suggests that the epic ebbs and flows of sea level and sediment over the course of geologic time is the primary cause of the world's periodic mass extinctions during the past 500 million years.From the (mostly uninformative) press release:
Since the advent of life on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, scientists think there may have been as many as 23 mass extinction events, many involving simple forms of life such as single-celled microorganisms. During the past 540 million years, there have been five well-documented mass extinctions, primarily of marine plants and animals, with as many as 75-95 percent of species lost.
The new study is striking because it establishes a clear relationship between the tempo of mass extinction events and changes in sea level and sediment. Peters measured two principal types of marine shelf environments preserved in the rock record, one where sediments are derived from erosion of land and the other composed primarily of calcium carbonate, which is produced in-place by shelled organisms and by chemical processes. "The physical differences between (these two types) of marine environments have important biological consequences," Peters explains, noting differences in sediment stability, temperature, and the availability of nutrients and sunlight.
In the course of hundreds of millions of years, the world's oceans have expanded and contracted in response to the shifting of the Earth's tectonic plates and to changes in climate. There were periods of the planet's history when vast areas of the continents were flooded by shallow seas, such as the shark- and mosasaur-infested seaway that neatly split North America during the age of the dinosaurs.
As those epicontinental seas drained, animals such as mosasaurs and giant sharks went extinct, and conditions on the marine shelves where life exhibited its greatest diversity in the form of things like clams and snails changed as well.
a, Total number of genera. b, Per-capita, per-interval extinction rates. Error bars show 95% binomial confidence limits. Major mass extinctions are labelled (O/S, end-Ordovician; D, late-Devonian; P/T, end-Permian; Tr/J, end-Triassic; K/Pg, end-Cretaceous). O, Ordovician; S, Silurian; D, Devonian; C, Carboniferous; P, Permian; Tr, Triassic; J, Jurassic; K, Cretaceous; Pg, Palaeogene; Ng, Neogene. Myr ago, million years ago.