Researchers examined the number of known families of marine invertebrates, as well as sea-surface temperatures, over the course of 540 million years of Earth's history. They found that when temperatures were high, so was biodiversity. When temperatures fell, biodiversity also declined.
The results contradict previous work, including findings from lead author Peter Mayhew's group, that reported an inverse correlation between high temperatures and biodiversity.
The reason for the about-face, says Mayhew, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of York, UK, is that the earlier work measured fossil diversity by tallying the first and last appearances of each group of species, then assuming that the creatures existed only during the intervening years. This might sound logical, but overlooks the fact that some geological periods are better studied than others.
To correct this, the new study looked only at the well-sampled periods. And, instead of interpolating organisms' presence from origination and extinction dates, it merely tallied species groups present during each period.
Even so, given that climate change is generally viewed as disruptive, Mayhew admits it was a "big surprise" to find that eras of warming were accompanied by increases in biodiversity. The work also provided a solution to another puzzle, Mayhew says. Tropical ecosystems are known to be Earth's most diverse, and the tropics would be expected to expand during warm eras. Yet in the past these eras were thought to be species-poor compared with cooler ones. The new results resolve that contradiction.
Warming produces both extinctions and originations, and in the past the originations of new species have outstripped the loss of old ones, says Mayhew. But this does not mean that today's climate change will be beneficial.
"The rate of change is very important," Mayhew says. For diversity to rise, he explains, new species need to evolve. And that takes between thousands and millions of years — much slower than the rate at which extinctions are likely to occur with today's rapid change."