Abstract

The dark, near-freezing environment of the deep oceans is regarded as one of the most stable habitats on Earth, and this stability is generally reflected in the slow turnover rates (extinctions and appearances) of the organisms that live there. By far the best fossil record of deep-sea organisms is provided by the shells of benthic foraminifera (Protista). A little-known global extinction of deep-sea benthic foraminifera occurred during the Pleistocene ice ages. In the southwest Pacific, it caused the disappearance of at least two families, 15 genera, and 48 species (∼15%–25% of the fauna) of dominantly uniserial, elongate foraminifera with distinctive apertural modifications. These forms progressively died back and became extinct during glacial periods in the late Pliocene to middle Pleistocene (ca. 2.5–0.6 Ma); most extinctions occurred between 1.0 and 0.6 Ma, at the time of the middle Pleistocene climatic revolution. This first high-resolution study of this extinction event indicates that it was far more significant for deep-sea diversity loss than previously reported (10 species). The middle Pleistocene extinction was the most dramatic last phase of a worldwide decline in the abundance of these elongate forms, a phase that began during cooling near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary and continued during the middle Miocene. Clearly these taxa declined when the world cooled, but the reason is yet to be resolved.

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