Stratigraphic signatures of mass extinctions: ecological and sedimentary determinants.Proc Biol Sci. 2018 09 12; 285(1886)PB
Stratigraphic patterns of last occurrences (LOs) of fossil taxa potentially fingerprint mass extinctions and delineate rates and geometries of those events. Although empirical studies of mass extinctions recognize that random sampling causes LOs to occur earlier than the time of extinction (Signor-Lipps effect), sequence stratigraphic controls on the position of LOs are rarely considered. By tracing stratigraphic ranges of extant mollusc species preserved in the Holocene succession of the Po coastal plain (Italy), we demonstrated that, if mass extinction took place today, complex but entirely false extinction patterns would be recorded regionally due to shifts in local community composition and non-random variation in the abundance of skeletal remains, both controlled by relative sea-level changes. Consequently, rather than following an apparent gradual pattern expected from the Signor-Lipps effect, LOs concentrated within intervals of stratigraphic condensation and strong facies shifts mimicking sudden extinction pulses. Methods assuming uniform recovery potential of fossils falsely supported stepwise extinction patterns among studied species and systematically underestimated their stratigraphic ranges. Such effects of stratigraphic architecture, co-produced by ecological, sedimentary and taphonomic processes, can easily confound interpretations of the timing, duration and selectivity of mass extinction events. Our results highlight the necessity of accounting for palaeoenvironmental and sequence stratigraphic context when inferring extinction dynamics from the fossil record.