The Late Devonian mass extinction (roughly 372 million years ago) was one of five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, with roughly 75% of all species disappearing over its course. It happened in two “pulses,” spaced about 800,000 years apart, with most of the extinctions happening in the second pulse. However, for one group of animals living in eastern North America, the first pulse dealt the deadlier blow.

Research out today in Scientific Reports looks at how and why this group of animals, called brachiopods, seemed to do the opposite of so many other species. What caused this group to hit the accelerator toward extinction?

“From our data, it seems climate change was the primary factor for the Devonian extinction in this part of New York and Pennsylvania,” says Pier. “Temperatures were changing, and these brachiopods would have had a hard time moving around to a better environment because the area is geographically isolated. For our species, 70% of them were endemic to the region and it reflects that difficulty in migrating.”

These broad patterns and concepts from past extinction events can be applied to understand similar patterns researchers are seeing today, says Pier, where some groups fare well while others die out.

Bush says, “In a general sense, climate change is an important aspect of extinction. In this paper we tried to get at this extra angle of the isolated biota and how that plays in. Most of the time in the fossil record, anything that happens within hundreds to thousands of years, you can’t really tell it apart. Even if a mass extinction takes place over several thousand years, you might not be able to look at the detailed temporal spatial patterns of what happened when, but because this event was something that happened in a couple of pulses spread out in time we were able to look at these spatial and temporal patterns in a different way.”

Read the full article about mass extinction and climate change by Elaina Hancock at University of Connecticut.