Diversity of Life through Time


Global diversity is the total number of taxa living in the present day or at any time in the geological past. Reconstructing the trajectory of global diversity by compiling data from the fossil record has been a major research agenda for palaeontologists for decades. The goal is to produce an accurate reconstruction of the pattern of global diversity that will ultimately allow us to understand the causes of diversity increases, decreases and transitions in the composition of the biota. The Paleobiology Database, a new large‐scale database based on individual collections of fossil taxa, allows palaeontologists to standardise sampling, thereby controlling for vagaries of the fossil record. Collection‐level data also allows researchers to identify any asynchrony of changes in diversity among regions of the globe, with the ultimate goal of identifying the habitats or environments that support biodiversity growth.

Key Concepts:

  • Biodiversity is the number of taxa alive in any interval of time.

  • Given that not all taxa are readily preserved in the fossil record and not all taxa can be counted, trajectories of interpolated changes in biodiversity are more relevant than estimates of extrapolated diversity.

  • Ancient biodiversity patterns are biased in multiple ways; extreme care must be taken to adjust for biases.

  • Diversification can be positive and negative; mass depletions of biodiversity are caused by severe and rapid environmental changes, whereas major increases of diversity are more gradual being governed by recoveries from mass extinctions and evolutionary innovations.

  • Evidence for limits of diversity is increasing in the fossil and molecular records.

  • Different taxa dominated at different times.

  • New taxa tend to originate in shallow tropical reef environments.

Keywords: biodiversity; diversification; extinction; macroevolution; fossils

Figure 1.

Global Phanerozoic diversity for marine genera (based on Sepkoski, ) showing the trajectories of the three evolutionary faunas. Only genera of the most representative groups of each evolutionary fauna are shown. Grey boxes indicate periods. Time scale abbreviations are: Cm, Cambrian; O, Ordovician; S, Silurian; D, Devonian; C, Carboniferous; P, Permian; Tr, Triassic; J, Jurassic; K, Cretaceous; Pg, Paleogene; N, Neogene.

Figure 2.

Global Phanerozoic diversity trajectories for (a) marine families, (b) marine and terrestrial vertebrate families, (c) insect families and (d) terrestrial plant families. Data are from Benton . Grey boxes indicate periods. Time scale abbreviations are: Cm, Cambrian; O, Ordovician; S, Silurian; D, Devonian; C, Carboniferous; P, Permian; Tr, Triassic; J, Jurassic; K, Cretaceous; Pg, Paleogene; N, Neogene.

Figure 3.

Comparison of global Phanerozoic diversity trajectories for marine genera. The top curve depicts sampling‐standardised diversity from the Paleobiology Database (Alroy et al., ). The data for the lower curve come from Sepkoski . Grey boxes denote alternating periods. Time scale abbreviations are: Cm, Cambrian; O, Ordovician; S, Silurian; D, Devonian; C, Carboniferous; P, Permian; Tr, Triassic; J, Jurassic; K, Cretaceous; Pg, Paleogene; N, Neogene.



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Further Reading

Erwin DH (2009) Climate as a driver of evolutionary change. Current Biology 19(14): R575–R583.

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Simpson, Carl, and Kiessling, Wolfgang(Nov 2010) Diversity of Life through Time. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001636.pub2]