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A species' unwelcome inheritance: extinction risk
September 2009

Deposits of fossil bivalve shells have shed light on the connection between extinction rate and evolutionary history.
In celebration of the Year of Science's September theme, biodiversity and conservation, this month's story focuses on diversity's nemesis: extinction. The world faces what may be our sixth mass extinction. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate — 100 to 1000 times higher than throughout most of Earth's history. As conservationists struggle to lower this rate, there is concern about where their efforts should be focused. Less than one quarter of the world's 8-14 million species have been described, and only 2.5% of those have been evaluated for extinction risk. How can we set our conservation priorities in the face of so much risk and uncertainty? Biologists tackling this problem have discovered that certain traits seem to go along with high extinction risk — for example, being a large vertebrate or living only in a small area. Now, new research suggests another useful factor to consider: evolutionary history.

Where's the evolution?
An organism's evolutionary history may contain important information about whether it is likely to wind up extinct, say biologists Kaustuv Roy, Gene Hunt, and David Jablonski — and this could help us protect those species. The scientists' hypothesis, published last month, is based on a study of clams, oysters, and their relatives over the past 200 million years. Since it's difficult to identify these critters as particular species consistently based on fossilized shells, the team focused on closely related groups, called genera, and the larger families these 1700 genera belonged to. For each family, they counted up how many genera went extinct during a particular time period. They discovered that the extinctions were far from random; rather, they were clustered together in particular families. In other words, extinction risk seems to be a family trait that can be passed on from an ancestor to its descendants.

You can also see this on the evolutionary tree, or phylogeny, of the mollusks. This tree shows the relationships among different mollusk families. The size of the circles represents the extinction rate for each family. The bigger the circle, the more extinction-prone the family is. Notice how the biggest circles are clustered together and not spread out randomly over the tree? Closely related families tend to have similar extinction risks.

bivalve family phylogeny showing extinction rates

Of course, this doesn't mean that organisms have a specific "extinction gene." It just means that there's probably a set of heritable characteristics that influences a species' risk of extinction. We don't know exactly what those characteristics are — they could include almost anything, from reproductive strategy to food source — however, we do know that they are passed from ancestor to descendant. Since closely related organisms tend to inherit similar traits from their common ancestors, they also wind up with similar extinction rates.

NESCent Video podcast on extinction risk provided by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). To learn more, visit the NESCent website.
This is bad news for any species that finds itself on a once blooming, now leafless branch of the tree of life — but it could be useful information for those who want to preserve biodiversity. We have little knowledge of most of the species that inhabit the Earth. Many are on the verge of extinction, but we don't always know which. If extinction risk does indeed run in families, it could help us set initial conservation priorities until we have more detailed knowledge.

Even more importantly, Roy's team's findings point to a worrisome outcome of extinction's relentless pruning of the tree of life: it's very likely to lop off entire branches. If extinction were random, we'd expect it to take a leaf here and a twig there, preserving the overall shape and size of the tree. But if some branches have intrinsically higher extinction risks than others, the process is liable to wipe out these whole limbs — and with them, huge swaths of genetic and organismic diversity.

Preserving this biological diversity has inherent value and is important from the standpoint of conservation — but it has practical justifications as well. Distinct branches on the tree of life have often evolved traits and genes that are found in no other organisms. For example, many closely related yew trees contain unique chemicals that effectively treat cancer. If this entire group had been wiped out by extinction, we would have no knowledge of these valuable drugs. Other branches of the tree of life will likely point us towards other useful substances or genes. There is much to learn from these unique segments of evolutionary history. Unfortunately, if extinction does run in families, it is particularly likely to rip out whole chapters from the encyclopedia of life

This means that if we want to preserve genetic and organismic diversity, we need to focus our efforts on the remaining survivors of lineages with high extinction risks. These "last lineages standing" are irreplaceable — and vulnerable. Roy and his colleagues' research highlights the importance of taking into account the processes that have shaped these species' evolutionary past, while trying to save their evolutionary future.

Read more about it

Primary literature:

  • Roy, K., Hunt, G., and Jablonski, D. (2009). Phylogenetic conservatism of extinction in marine bivalves. Science 325(5941):733-737.
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News articles:

Understanding Evolution resources:

Discussion and extension questions

  1. The research described here suggests that extinction "runs in families." In your own words, explain what this means.

  2. Do some brainstorming and come up with three traits that you think might make a species more likely to go extinct. For each, note whether or not it is heritable — in other words, whether it can be passed from ancestor to descendant.

  3. Imagine that you are a wildlife biologist who discovers a new species of clam. You don't know much about the clam, but you can identify it as a member of a family that flourished 400 million years ago but that has now almost completely vanished. Only a few species belonging to this family are alive today. Answer each of the following questions:

    • Based on the research described in the article above, do you think this clam's risk of extinction is high, medium, or low? Explain your reasoning.

    • Is it important to try to preserve this species? Why or why not?

    • If you were asked to make a recommendation to a conservation agency regarding whether or not they should set aside money to preserve the habitat of this clam, what would you say and how would you explain your reasoning?

  4. What factors do you think should be considered in setting conservation priorities — i.e., in deciding which species we should really focus on saving? List three factors worth considering and explain why you think each is important.

Related lessons and teaching resources

  • Teach about the fossil record: This web-based module for grades 6-12 provides students with a basic understanding of how fossils can be used to interpret the past.

  • Teach about studying extinction in the fossil record: This research profile for grades 9-12 follows scientist David Jablonski as he analyzes patterns in the fossil record to learn about the rules that helped dictate who lived and died in past mass extinctions.

  • Teach about modern implications of the fossil record: This research profile for grades 9-12 follows paleobotanist Jennifer McElwain as she studies the fossil record in order to learn more about how global warming has affected life on Earth in the past and how it might affect life on Earth in the future.


  • Brown, S. (2009, August 3). Extinction runs in the family. UC San Diego News Center. Retrieved August 14, 2009 from UC San Diego.

  • International Union for Conservation of Nature. (2008). State of the world's species. IUCN Red List. Retrieved August 14, 2009 from International Union for Conservation of Nature.

  • Roy, K., Hunt, G., and Jablonski, D. (2009). Phylogenetic conservatism of extinction in marine bivalves. Science 325(5941):733-737.

  • Species disappearing at an alarming rate, report says. (2004, November 17). MSNBC. Retrieved August 14, 2009 from MSNBC.

Photo of fossil bivalve shells provided by Carole Hickman and UCMP

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