Abstract

The fossil record has been used to show that in some geologic intervals certain traits of taxa may increase their survivability, and therefore that the risk of extinction is not randomly distributed among taxa. It has also been suggested that traits that buffer against extinction in background times do not confer the same resistance during mass extinction events. An open question is whether at any time in geologic history extinction probabilities were randomly distributed among taxa. Here we use a method for detecting random extinction to demonstrate that during both background and mass extinction times, extinction of marine invertebrate genera has been nonrandom with respect to species richness categories of genera. A possible cause for this nonrandom extinction is selective clustering of extinctions in genera consisting of species which possess extinction-biasing traits. Other potential causes considered here include geographic selectivity, increased extinction susceptibility for species in species-rich genera, or biases related to taxonomic practice and/or sampling heterogeneity. An important theoretical result is that extinction selectivity at the species level cannot be smoothly extrapolated upward to genera; the appearance of random genus extinction with respect to species richness of genera results when extinction has been highly selective at the species level.

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