The number of species on the planet, or in any geographical area, is the result of an equilibrium of two evolutionary processes that are ongoing: speciation and extinction. Both are natural “birth” and “death” processes of macroevolution. When speciation rates begin to outstrip extinction rates, the number of species will increase; likewise, the reverse is true when extinction rates begin to overtake speciation rates. Throughout the history of life on Earth, as reflected in the fossil record, these two processes have fluctuated to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes leading to dramatic changes in the number of species on the planet as reflected in the fossil record (Figure 21.13).
Paleontologists have identified five strata in the fossil record that appear to show sudden and dramatic (greater than half of all extant species disappearing from the fossil record) losses in biodiversity. These are called mass extinctions. There are many lesser, yet still dramatic, extinction events, but the five mass extinctions have attracted the most research into their causes. An argument can be made that the five mass extinctions are only the five most extreme events in a continuous series of large extinction events throughout the fossil record (since 542 million years ago). In most cases, the hypothesized causes are still controversial; in one, the most recent, the cause seems clear. The most recent extinction in geological time, about 65 million years ago, saw the disappearance of the dinosaurs and many other species. Most scientists now agree the cause of this extinction was the impact of a large asteroid in the present-day Yucatán Peninsula and the subsequent energy release and global climate changes caused by dust ejected into the atmosphere.