Biodiversity May Need Millions of Years to Recover
By Cat Lazaroff
BERKELEY, California, January 3, 2002 (ENS) - The worldwide decimation of wildlife by humans could be "permanent on multi-million year timescales," warns James Kirchner of the University of California at Berkeley. Kirchner's analysis of long term trends in the fossil record suggests that natural speed limits constrain how quickly biodiversity can rebound after waves of extinction.
But the booms of diversification, in which hundreds or thousands of new organisms appear, rarely happen quickly, writes Kirchner in this week's issue of the journal "Nature."
His statistical analysis of the rates of extinction and diversification in the fossil record shows that life seldom rebounds rapidly after an extinction.
The results imply that the diversification of life obeys so called speed limits set by evolutionary processes, said Kirchner, a professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley.
This apparent speed limit on the rate at which surviving organisms evolve and diversify has major implications for present day extinctions - caused not by natural catastrophes but by human sources such as pollution, alteration of natural habitats, and unsustainable hunting and fishing.
"If we substantially diminish biodiversity on Earth, we can't expect the biosphere to just bounce back. It doesn't do that. The process of diversification is too slow," Kirchner said. "The planet would be biologically depleted for millions of years, with consequences extending not only beyond the lives of our children's children, but beyond the likely lifespan of the entire human species."
Kirchner has been mining a fossil database created by the late University of Chicago paleontologist Jack Sepkoski, who catalogued the genera and families of fossil marine animals over the past 530 million years, from the Cambrian to the present. Using a technique called spectral analysis, Kirchner looked for patterns in the rates at which new organisms appear or disappear.
Last year, Kirchner and colleague Anne Weil reported that the Earth needs, on average, about 10 million years to recover from global extinctions, whether they involve the loss of most life on Earth or wipe out far fewer species. This was much longer than most scientists had believed.
The new results come from asking a related question: How do rates of extinction and diversification vary, and how are they related? This is important because, if rapid diversification is possible, biodiversity might be able to rebound quickly from a global extinction.
That means that evolution does not accelerate quickly in response to rapid bursts of extinction.
One possible explanation for why diversification takes so long to speed up after an extinction is that extinction eliminates not merely species or groups of species, but removes ecological niches: the roles which organisms play within ecosystems.
Recovery becomes more complicated because specialized roles, such as parasites that live on just one species, or animals that consume just one kind of food, do not evolve until their hosts are already well established.
"This shows that extinction is not like knocking chess pieces off a chessboard, with the empty squares ready for you to plunk down new pieces," Kirchner said. "Extinction is more like knocking down a house of cards. You only have places to put new cards as you rebuild the structure of the house."
"At a fundamental biological level it takes time to build niches, evolve new organisms and filter out unsuccessful ones, although it's not yet clear what all the limiting factors are."
Kirchner's work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the University of California.