The complex effects of mass extinctions on morphological disparity

Mark Puttick, Thomas Guillerme, Matthew Wills

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (SciVal)
12 Downloads (Pure)


Studies of biodiversity through deep time have been a staple for biologists and paleontologists for over 60 years. Investigations of species richness (diversity) revealed that at least five mass extinctions punctuated the last half billion years, each seeing the rapid demise of a large proportion of contemporary taxa. In contrast to diversity, the response of morphological diversity (disparity) to mass extinctions is unclear. Generally, diversity and disparity are decoupled, such that diversity may decline as morphological disparity increases, and vice versa. Here, we develop simulations to model disparity changes across mass extinctions using continuous traits and birth‐death trees. We find no simple null for disparity change following a mass extinction but do observe general patterns. The range of trait values decreases following either random or trait‐selective mass extinctions, whereas variance and the density of morphospace occupation only decline following trait‐selective events. General trends may differentiate random and trait‐selective mass extinctions, but methods struggle to identify trait selectivity. Long‐term effects of mass extinction trait selectivity change support for phylogenetic comparative methods away from the simulated Brownian motion toward Ornstein‐Uhlenbeck and Early Burst models. We find that morphological change over mass extinction is best studied by quantifying multiple aspects of morphospace occupation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2207-2220
Issue number10
Early online date10 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2020


Dive into the research topics of 'The complex effects of mass extinctions on morphological disparity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this