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Published on:
Tuesday 14 May 2024

Wolfson Student Uncovers What Drives Extinction

Wolfson College has a proud record when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, both in successfully eliminating our carbon emissions and in the ongoing work of our graduates and Fellows. Third-year Wolfson doctoral student Cooper Malanoski has been continuing this long tradition with the publication of new research into historic drivers behind mass extinction events. His work has the potential to help identify at-risk species and target conservation efforts in the present day.

An artist's impression of a coral reef in the late Triassic, before and after an extinction event. The left-hand side shows a vibrant, colourful scene with clear seas populated by a wide variety of wildlife; the left-hand side shows dark, clouded water with bleached corals and a single nautilus creature.

An artist’s impression of a coral reef in the late Triassic, before and after an extinction event. Credit: Maija Karala.

The Earth has experienced five mass extinction events in the past 450 million years. The most recent led to the end of the dinosaurs, which vanished from the fossil record a mere 66 million years ago. It’s no secret that changes in the climate can have an adverse effect on biodiversity, but until now it has been unclear what factors make a species more or less resilient to such changes. With human activity now warming the planet at an unprecedented rate, it’s important to identify which species are most at risk.

Cooper and fellow researcher Professor Erin Saupe studied over 290,000 fossil records spanning the past 485 million years for marine invertebrates. From these records, they were able to collate a dataset of traits that affect resilience to extinction. They found that species that are exposed to temperature changes of more than 7˚C, inhabit climate extremes or will only live in a narrow range of temperatures are disproportionately vulnerable. These species, particularly when occupying confined areas, had a higher likelihood of extinction.

“Our paper, recently published in Science, suggests that global biodiversity could face a harrowing future, given projected climate change estimates. In particular, our study revealed that geographic range size was the strongest predictor of extinction risk for marine invertebrates, but that the magnitude of climate change is also an important predictor of extinction. Therefore, if the localized climate change is large enough, it could lead to significant extinction globally, potentially pushing us closer to a sixth mass extinction.”

– Cooper Malanoski

With anthropogenic climate change already pushing many species to the brink of extinction, these results could help identify those most at risk and inform strategies to protect them. “Without immediate and targeted conservation efforts,” warns Malanoski, “we risk moving toward a sixth mass extinction event. So our work provides a pivotal call to action.”

Cooper Malanoski is in the third year of DPhil study at Wolfson, which is funded by a Clarendon Fellowship. His research focuses on the influence of climate on evolutionary dynamics and using fossils to study biogeographic distributions through the Phanerozoic. His work seeks to better understand the complex interplay between biotic and abiotic factors, such as geographic distribution and climate variations, in driving extinctions on macroevolutionary timescales.

Read Cooper’s article in The Conversation here.