Post-Cambrian Evolution and Mass Extinctions

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The chart shows percent extinction intensity versus time in millions of years before present. Extinction intensity spikes at boundaries between periods, including the end of the Ordovician which had 30 percent extinction occurances approximately 450 million years ago.  The late Devonian had approximately 25 percent extinction occurances at roughly 375 million years ago.  The end of the Permian had 50 percent extinction occurances approximately 250 million years ago.  The end of the Triassic had roughly 30 percent extinction occurances 200 million years ago.  And the end of the Cretaceous periods had over 30 percent extinction occurances roughly 70 million years ago.
Extinctions. Mass extinctions have occurred repeatedly over geological time. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The periods that followed the Cambrian during the Paleozoic Era are marked by further animal evolution and the emergence of many new orders, families, and species. As animal phyla continued to diversify, new species adapted to new ecological niches. During the Ordovician period, which followed the Cambrian period, plant life first appeared on land. This change allowed formerly aquatic animal species to invade land, feeding directly on plants or decaying vegetation. Continual changes in temperature and moisture throughout the remainder of the Paleozoic Era due to continental plate movements encouraged the development of new adaptations to terrestrial existence in animals, such as limbed appendages in amphibians and epidermal scales in reptiles.

Changes in the environment often create new niches (diversified living spaces) that invite rapid speciation and increased diversity. On the other hand, cataclysmic events, such as volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes that obliterate life, can result in devastating losses of diversity to some clades, yet provide new opportunities for others to “fill in the gaps” and speciate. Such periods of mass extinction have occurred repeatedly in the evolutionary record of life, erasing some genetic lines while creating room for others to evolve into the empty niches left behind. The end of the Permian period (and the Paleozoic Era) was marked by the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, a loss of an estimated 95 percent of the extant species at that time. Some of the dominant phyla in the world’s oceans, such as the trilobites, disappeared completely. On land, the disappearance of some dominant species of Permian reptiles made it possible for a new line of reptiles to emerge, the dinosaurs. The warm and stable climatic conditions of the ensuing Mesozoic Era promoted an explosive diversification of dinosaurs into every conceivable niche in land, air, and water. Plants, too, radiated into new landscapes and empty niches, creating complex communities of producers and consumers, some of which became very large on the abundant food available.

Another mass extinction event occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period, bringing the Mesozoic Era to an end. Skies darkened and temperatures fell after a large meteor impact and tons of volcanic ash ejected into the atmosphere blocked incoming sunlight. Plants died, herbivores and carnivores starved, and the dinosaurs ceded their dominance of the landscape to the more warm-blooded mammals. In the following Cenozoic Era, mammals radiated into terrestrial and aquatic niches once occupied by dinosaurs, and birds—the warm-blooded direct descendants of one line of the ruling reptiles—became aerial specialists. The appearance and dominance of flowering plants in the Cenozoic Era created new niches for pollinating insects, as well as for birds and mammals. Changes in animal species diversity during the late Cretaceous and early Cenozoic were also promoted by a dramatic shift in Earth’s geography, as continental plates slid over the crust into their current positions, leaving some animal groups isolated on islands and continents, or separated by mountain ranges or inland seas from other competitors. Early in the Cenozoic, new ecosystems appeared, with the evolution of grasses and coral reefs. Late in the Cenozoic, further extinctions followed by speciation occurred during ice ages that covered high latitudes with ice and then retreated, leaving new open spaces for colonization.

Source:

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e

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