The Pliocene Marine Extinction Event

A major marine extinction event rubbed out at least 36% of the ocean’s vertebrate genera about 2.5 million years ago.  Scientists believe the extinctions were caused by a sea level fluctuation, resulting from glacial expansion.  Ice Ages increased in intensity during the late Pliocene and as more atmospheric moisture became locked in glaciers, sea level fell.  Habitat for many coastal species simply disappeared because their near shore environments rose above sea level.  A new study determined 55% of marine mammals, 43% of sea turtles, 35% of sea birds, and 9% of sharks and rays went extinct. I believe this estimate may undercount the actual loss because there are likely some extinct species yet to be discovered by paleontologists.  Many species of invertebrates became extinct as well.

Most of the genera lost were impressive and interesting.  Metaxytherium were a widespread genera of dugongs that grazed sea grass off coasts all across the world.  Thalassocrus were a group of aquatic sloths that evolved from giant ground sloths.  Giant predatory sperm whales (Livyatan) preyed on whales.  Psephopherus, giant sea turtles, laid their eggs on beaches.  The islands off the coast of South Africa, where several species of extinct penguins nested, became connected to land when sea level fell, and predators were able to invade and destroy their colonies. And of course the famous giant white shark, Megalodon, hunted the many species of now extinct whales that lived during the Pliocene.  Most species of baleen whales were smaller and more agile then because they had to avoid these large predators.

Image result for Metaxytherium'

Metaxytherium floridanum swam near and over what today is Florida.

Image result for Thalassocnus

Thalassocrus, an aquatic genera of sloths.

Image result for Livyatan melvillei and megalodon

2 of the largest predators that lived during the Pliocene–Livyatan melvillei and Carcharocles megalodon.  Both grew to 60 feet long.  Baleen whales were smaller and more agile then, enabling them to escape predation.  The extinction of these predators allowed baleen whales to evolve to a greater size, so they can gorge on food, then fast when they migrate to warmer calving grounds where killer whales, their only modern marine predator, are uncommon.

During the Pleistocene new marine species evolved that were better adapted to the fluctuating sea levels of alternating glacials and interglacials.  New genera increased by 21%.  However, this means there is still a deficit of -15% fewer marine vertebrates than there were during the Pliocene.  Sea life may reclaim the land though, if sea levels keep rising.

An octopus recently found its way into a Miami parking garage.  If sea levels keep rising, marine life may reclaim territory it lost during Ice Ages.

Reference:

Pimiento, C. et. al.

“The Pliocene Marine Megafauna Extinction and its Impact on Functional Diversity”

Nature Ecology and Evolution 1 June 2017

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One Response to “The Pliocene Marine Extinction Event”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    Sidewalk sushi..in Miami!! 😉

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