, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 37–47 | Cite as

The biodiversity crisis and the future of evolution

  • Norman Myers


A large proportion of existing species — possibly half, conceivably even more — may be lost within the foreseeable future. But this may not prove to be the most consequential outcome of the current biodiversity crisis. More significant could be the disruption and degradation of several basic processes of evolution. It appears likely that for mass extinction episodes (MEEs) in the geological past, the recovery period usually lasted at least five million years. Because of certain unique features of the present MEE — notably the near elimination of biomes such as tropical forests, wetlands and coral reefs, which have served as ‘powerhouses’ of evolution in the past — the ‘bounce-back’ phase could extend several times longer than five million years. Among distinctive features of future evolution could be; in the short term, homogenization of biotas, a proliferation of opportunistic species, an outburst of speciation among particular taxa, and a pest-and-weed ecology; and, in the long term, a decline of biodisparity, the elimination of megavertebrates, an end to speciation among large vertebrates, and multiple constraints on origination, innovation and adaptive radiation. These disruptive phenomena would rank among the most prominent departures in the entire course of evolution. Full knowledge and understanding of what may characterize future evolution remains largely a black hole of research. As a consequence, conservation policies fail to reflect a further problem of the biodiversity prospect, perhaps exceeding the better recognized problem of the mass extinction of species.


Black Hole Coral Reef Tropical Forest Foreseeable Future Mass Extinction 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Adams, J.M. and Woodward, F.I. (1992) The past as a key to the future: the use of palaeoenvironmental understanding to predict the effects of man on the biosphere.Advances in Ecological Research 22, 257–309.Google Scholar
  2. Antonovics, J., Bradshaw, A.D. and Turner, J.R.G. (1971) Heavy metal tolerance in plants.Advanced Ecological Research 7, 1–85.Google Scholar
  3. Arnold, M.L. (1992) Natural hybridization as an evolutionary process.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 23, 237–61.Google Scholar
  4. Avise, J.C. (1990) Flocks of African fishes.Nature 347, 512–13.Google Scholar
  5. Basilewsky, al. (1972) La faune terrestre de l'Isle de Sainte Helene.Annals Mus. R. Afr. Cent. Ser. Oct. Zool, 192.Google Scholar
  6. Benton, M.J. (ed) (1993)The Fossil Record. London, UK: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
  7. Benton, M.J. (1995) Diversification and extinction in the history of life.Science 268, 52–8.Google Scholar
  8. Briggs, J.C. (1991)Global Extinctions, Recoveries and Evolutionary Consequences. Chicago, Illinois, USA. University of Chicago Press. (see also Briggs (1991) A Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction?BioScience 41, 619–624).Google Scholar
  9. Briggs, D.E.G. and Crowther, P.R. (eds). (1990)Palaeobiology: Synthesis. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  10. Brooks, D.R., Mayden, R.L. and McLennan, D.A. (1992) Phylogeny and biodiversity: conserving our evolutionary legacy.Trends in Ecology and Evolution 7, 55–9.Google Scholar
  11. Buffetaut, E. (1990) The relevance of past mass extinctions to an understanding of current and future extinction processes.Global and Planetary Change 2, 164–74.Google Scholar
  12. Ceballos, G. and Brown, J.H. (1995) Global patterns of mammalian diversity, endemism, and endangerment.Conservation Biology 9, 559–68.Google Scholar
  13. Clemens, W.A. (1986) Evolution of the terrestrial vertebrate fauna during the Cretaceous-Tertiary transition. In: Elliott, D.K. (ed)Dynamics of Extinction pp. 63–85. New York, USA. John Wiley.Google Scholar
  14. Curnutt, J.L. and Pimm, S. (1995) Managing nature when there are no ‘ill winds’.Current Biology 5, 713–15.Google Scholar
  15. D-Antonio, C.M. and Vitousek, P.M. (1992) Biological invasions by exotic grasses, the grass-fire cycle, and global change.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 23, 63–87.Google Scholar
  16. Darlington, P.J. (1957)Zoo Geography: The Geographical Distribution of Animals. New York, USA: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  17. Davis, S.D. and seven others. (1986)Plants in Danger: What do We Know? International Union for Conservation of Natural and Natural Resources, Gland, Switzerland.Google Scholar
  18. Drake, J.A., Mooney, H.A., diCastri, F., Groves, R., Kruger, F., Rejmanek, M. and Williamson, M. (eds). (1989)Biological Invasions: A Global Perspective. New York, USA: Wiley and Sons.Google Scholar
  19. Ehrlich, P.R. (1987) Population biology, conservation biology, and the future of humanity.BioScience 37, 757–63.Google Scholar
  20. Ehrlich, P.R. and Wilson, E.O. (1991) Biodiversity studies, science and policy.Science 253, 758–62.Google Scholar
  21. Eldredge, N. (1991)The Miner's Canary. New York, USA: Prentice-Hall Press.Google Scholar
  22. Erwin, D.H. (1993)The Great Palaeozoic Crisis: Life and Death in the Permean. New York, USA: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Erwin, D.H., Valentine, J.W. and Sepkoski, J.J. (1987) A comparative study of diversification events: the early Paleozoic versus the Mezozoic.Evolution 41, 1177–86.Google Scholar
  24. Erwin, T.L. (1991) An evolutionary basis for conservation strategies.Science 253, 750–52.Google Scholar
  25. Fagerstrom, J.A. (1987)The Evolution of Reef Communities. New York, USA: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  26. Feduccia, A. (1995) Explosive evolution in Tertiary birds and mammals.Science 267, 637–38.Google Scholar
  27. Fitch, W.M. and Ayala, F.J. (1994) Tempo and mode in evolution.Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA 91, 6717–20.Google Scholar
  28. Foote, M. (1993) Discordance and concordance between morphological and taxonomic diversity.Paleobiology 19, 185–204.Google Scholar
  29. Franklin, I.R. (1980) Evolutionary change in small populations. In: Soule, M.E. and Wilcox, B.A. (eds)Conservation Biology: An Evolutionary-Ecological Perspective pp. 135–149. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  30. Gagne, W.C. (1988) Conservation priorities in Hawaiian natural systems.BioScience 38, 264–71.Google Scholar
  31. Gentry, A.H. (1986) Endemism in tropical versus temperate plant communities. In: Soule, M.E. (ed)Conservation Biology: The Science of Scarcity and Diversity, pp. 153–181. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  32. Gentry, A.H. and Dodson, C. (1987) Diversity and phytogeography of Neotropical vascular epiphytes.Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 14, 205–33.Google Scholar
  33. Georghiou, G.P. (1990) Overview of insecticide resistance. In: Green, M.B., Le Baron, H.M. and Moberg, W.K. (eds.)Managing resistance to agrochemicals: from fundamental research to practical strategies. Washington, DC: Amer. Chem. Soc.Google Scholar
  34. Georgiadis, N., Bischof, L., Templeton, A., Patton, J., Karesh, W. and Western, D. (1994) Structure and history of African elephant populations: I, Eastern and Southern Africa.Journal of Heredity 85, 100–4.Google Scholar
  35. Gould, F. (1991) The evolutionary potential of crop pests.American Scientist 79, 496–507.Google Scholar
  36. Greenwood, P.H. (1965) The cichlid fishes of Lake Namugabo, Uganda.Bulletin of British Museum of Natural History D,12, 315–57.Google Scholar
  37. Groombridge, B. (ed). (1992)Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth's Living Resources. London, UK: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
  38. Hansen, T.F. (1988) Early Tertiary radiation of marine molluscs and the long-term effects of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.Palaeobiology 14, 37–51.Google Scholar
  39. Hart, P. (ed). (1996) Biotic Recovery from Mass Extinction Events (in press).Google Scholar
  40. Hochberg, M.E., Clobert, J. and Barbault, R. (eds). (1995)The Genesis and Maintenance of Biological Diversity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Howarth, F.G., Sohmer, S.H. and Duckworth, W.D. (1988) Hawaiian natural history and conservation efforts.BioScience 38, 232–7.Google Scholar
  42. Jablonski, D.W. (1986) Evolutionary consequences of mass extinctions. In: Raup, D.M. and Jablonski, D.W. (eds)Patterns and Processes in the History of Life, pp. 313–29. Berlin, West Germany: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  43. Jablonski, D.W. (1991) Extinctions: a Palaeontological perspective.Science 253, 754–7.Google Scholar
  44. Jablonski, D.W. (1993) The tropics as a source of evolutionary novelty through geological time.Nature 364, 142–4.Google Scholar
  45. Jablonski, D.W. (1995) Extinctions in the fossil record. In: Lawton, J.H. and May, R.M. (eds)Extinction Rates, pp. 25–44. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Jablonski, D.W and Bottjer, D.J. (1990) Onshore-offshore trends in marine invertebrate evolution. In: Ross, R.M. and Allmon, W.D. (eds)Cause of Evolution: A Paleontological Perspective, pp. 21–75. Chicago, Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  47. Jablonski, D.W and Bottjer, D.J. (1991) Environmental Patterns in the Origins of Higher Taxa: The Post Paleozoic Fossil Record.Science 252, 1831–3.Google Scholar
  48. Johnson, K.R., Nichols, D.J., Attrep, M. Jnr. and Orph, C.J. (1989) High resolution leaf-fossil record spanning the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary.Nature 340, 708–11.Google Scholar
  49. Keenleyside, M.H.A. (ed.) (1991)Cyclid Fishes: Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution. London, UK: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
  50. Kendergh, C.S. (ed) (1973) Proceedings of symposium on the house sparrow in North America.Ornithological Monographs 14, 3–9.Google Scholar
  51. Kettlewell, H.B.D. (1973)The Evolution of Melanism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Knoll, A.H. (1984) Patterns of extinction in the fossil record of vascular plants. In: Nitecki, M.H. (ed)Extinctions pp. 21–68. Chicago, Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  53. Knoll, A.H. (1986) Patterns of change in plant communities through geological time. In: Diamond, J.M. and Case, T.J. (eds)Community Ecology, pp. 126–41. New York, USA: Harper and Rowe.Google Scholar
  54. Kruess, A. and Tscharntke, T. (1994) Habitat fragmentation, species loss and biological control.Science 264, 1581–4.Google Scholar
  55. Leitch, A.R., Schwarzacher, T., Jackson, D. and Leitch, I.J. (eds) (1994)In Situ Hybridization. Oxford, UK: BIOS Scientific Publishers.Google Scholar
  56. Levin, D.A. (1988) Local differentiation and breedings structure of plant populations. In: Gottlieb, L.D. and Jain, S.K. (eds)Plant Evolutionary Biology, pp. 305–29. London, UK: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
  57. Lipps, J.H. (1986) Extinction dynamics in Pelagic ecosystems. In: Elliott, D.K.Dynamics of Extinction, pp. 87–104. New York, USA: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  58. Lloyd, C.S., Tasker, M. and Partridge, K. (1991)Sea Birds in Britain. London, UK: T. and A.D. Poyser.Google Scholar
  59. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. (1993) Fish faunas of the African Great Lakes: origins, diversity and vulnerability.Conservation Biology 7, 634–43.Google Scholar
  60. Lynch, I.D. (1989) The gauge of speciation: on the frequencies of modes of speciation. In: Otte, D. and Endler, I. (eds)Speciation and its Consequences, pp. 527–53. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  61. May, R.M. (1988) How many species are there on Earth?Science 241, 1441–9.Google Scholar
  62. Mayr, E. (1991)One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  63. Mayr, E. (1992)The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution an Inheritance. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Meyer, A. (1993) Phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary processus in East-African cichlid fishes.Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8, 279–84.Google Scholar
  65. Myers, N. (1985) The end of the lines.Natural History 94(2), 2, 6, 12.Google Scholar
  66. Myers, N. (1990) Mass extinctions: what can the past tell us about the present and the future?Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (Global and Planetary Change section)82, 175–85.Google Scholar
  67. Myers, N. (1993a) Questions of mass extinction.Biodiversity and Conservation 2, 2–17.Google Scholar
  68. Myers, N. (1993b) Biodiversity and the precautionary principle.Ambio 22(2–3), 74–9.Google Scholar
  69. Myers, N. (1994) Population and biodiversity. In: Graham-Smith, F. (ed)Population: The Complex Reality, pp. 117–36. London, UK: The Royal Society.Google Scholar
  70. Myers, N. (1995) The rich diversity of biodiversity issues. In: Reaka-Kudla, M.L., Wilson, D.E. and Wilson, E.O. (eds)Santa Rosalia. The Turning of the Century and a New Age of Exploration. Washington D.C., USA: National Academy/Joseph Henry Press.Google Scholar
  71. Nee, S. and May, R.M. (1992) Dynamics of metapopulations: habitat destruction and competitive coexistence.Journal of Animal Ecology 61, 37–40.Google Scholar
  72. Nitecki, M.H. (ed) (1990)Evolutionary Innovations. Chicago, Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  73. Otte, D. and Endler, J.A. (eds). (1989)Speciation and Its Consequences. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  74. Owen, R.B., Crossley, R., Johnson, T.C. Tweddle, D., Kornfield, I., Davison, S., Eccles, D.H. and Engstrom, D.E. (1990) Major low levels of Lake Malawi and their implications for speciation rates in cichlid fishes.Proceedings of Royal Society of London B.,240, 519–53.Google Scholar
  75. Pimentel, D. (1991) Diversification of biological control strategies in agriculture.Crop Protection 10, 243–53.Google Scholar
  76. Pimm, S.L. (1991)The Balance of Nature: Ecological Issues in the Conservation of Species and Communities. Chicago, Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  77. Pimm, S.L., Russell, G.J., Gittleman, J.L. and Brooks, T.M. (1995) The future of biodiversity.Science 269, 347–54.Google Scholar
  78. Quinn, J.F. and Harrison, S.P. (1988) Effects of habitat fragmentation and isolation on species richness: evidence from biogeographic patterns.Oecologia 75, 132–40.Google Scholar
  79. Raup, D.M. (1986)The Nemesis Affair. New York, USA. W.W. Norton; (see also Raup, D.M. (1986) Biological extinction in Earth history.Science 231, 1528–33).Google Scholar
  80. Raup, D.M. (1991)Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? New York, USA: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  81. Raup, D.M. (1994) The role of extinction in evolution.Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA 91, 6758–63.Google Scholar
  82. Raup, D.M. and Sepkoski, J.J. (1986) Periodic extinctions of family and genera.Science 241, 833–6.Google Scholar
  83. Raup, D.M. and Jablonski, D. (1993) Geography of end-Cretaceous marine biovalve extinctions.Science 260, 971–3.Google Scholar
  84. Raven, P.R. (1990) The politics of preserving biodiversity.BioScience 40, 769–74.Google Scholar
  85. Reaka-Kudla, M.L. (1991) Processes regulating biodiversity in coral reef communities, on ecological vs. evolutionary time scales. In: Dudley, E.C. (ed)The Unity of Evolutionary Biology, pp. 61–70. Portland, Oregon, USA: Dioscorides Press.Google Scholar
  86. Ricklefs, R.E. and Schluter, D. (1993)Species Diversity in Ecological Communities. Chicago, Illinois USA: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  87. Robinson, G.R., Holt, R.D., Gaines, M.S., Hambourg, S.P., Johnson, M.L., Fitch, H.S. and Martinko, E.A. (1992) Diverse and contrasting effects of habitat fragmentation.Science 257, 524–6.Google Scholar
  88. Rohde, K. (1992) Latitudinal gradients in species diversity: the search for the primary cause.Oikos 65, 514–27.Google Scholar
  89. Rosenzweig, M.L. (1995)Species Diversity in Space and Time. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  90. Roy, K., Jablonski, D. and Valentine, J.W. (1994) Eastern Pacific molluscan provinces and latitudinal diversity gradients: no evidence for ‘Rapoport's Rule’.Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA 91, 8871–4.Google Scholar
  91. Russell, G.J., Brooks, T.M., McKinney, M.L. and Anderson, C.G. (1995)Decreased Taxonomic Selectivity in the Future Extinction Crisis. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee (in press).Google Scholar
  92. Sanderson, M.J. and Donoghue, M.J. (1994) Shift in diversification rate with the origin of angiosperms.Science 264, 1590–3.Google Scholar
  93. Saunders, D.A., Hobbs, R.J. and Margules, C.R. (1991) Biological consequences of ecosystem fragmentation: a review.Conservation Biology 5, 18–32.Google Scholar
  94. Sepkoski, J.J. (1988) Alpha, Beta, or Gamma: where does all the diversity go?Paleobiology 14(3), 221–34.Google Scholar
  95. Shorrocks, B. and Swingland, I.R. (eds). (1990)Living in a Patchy Environment. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  96. Signor, P.W. (1990) The geologic history of diversity.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 21, 509–39.Google Scholar
  97. Simon, C. and Sugden, A. (eds). (1987) Hawaiian evolutionary biology.Trends in Ecology and Evolution 2, 173–229.Google Scholar
  98. Soule, M.E. (1980) Thresholds for survival: maintaining fitness and evolutionary potential. In: Soule, M.E. and Wilcox, B.A. (eds)Conservation Biology: An Evolutionary-Ecological Perspective, pp. 151–70. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  99. Soule, M.E. and Wilcox, B.A. (1980) Conservation biology: its scope and its challenge. In Soule, M.E. and Wilcox, B.A. (eds)Conservation Biology: An Evolutionary-Ecological Perspective, pp. 1–8. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  100. Stanley, S.M. (1981)The New Evolutionary Timetable. New York, USA: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  101. Stanley, S.M. (1990) Delayed recovery and the spacing of major extinctions.Paleobiology 16, 401–14.Google Scholar
  102. Stenseth, N.C. (1984) The tropics: cradle or musem?Oikos 43, 417–20.Google Scholar
  103. Traverse, A. (1990) Plant evolution in relation to world crises and the apparent resilience of kingdom Plantae.Global and Planetary Change 2, 203–11.Google Scholar
  104. Vermeij, G.J. (1991) When biotas meet: understanding biotic interchange.Science 253, 1099–103.Google Scholar
  105. Walliser, O.H. (ed). (1986)Global Bio-Events. Berlin, Germany; Springer Verlag.Google Scholar
  106. Walliser, O. (1995)Global Events and Event Stratigraphy. New York, USA: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  107. Wayne, R.K. and Gittleman, J.L. (1995) The problematic red wolf.Scientific American July, 26–31.Google Scholar
  108. Western, D. and Pearl, M.C. (eds.) (1989)Conservation for the Twenty-First Century. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  109. Whalley, P. (1987) Insects and cretaceous mass extinction. Nature327.Google Scholar
  110. Wiley, E.O. and Mayden, R.L. (1985) Species and speciation in phylogenetic systematics, with examples from the North American fish fauna.Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 72, 596–635.Google Scholar
  111. Wilson, E.O. (1992)The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  112. Wingfield-Gibbons, D., Reid, J.B. and Chapman, R.A. (1992)New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain an Ireland 1988–1991. London, UK: T. and A.D. Poyser Publisher.Google Scholar
  113. Wolfe, J.A. (1987) Later Cretaceous Cenozoic history of deciduousness and the terminal Cretaceous event.Palaeobiology 13, 215–26.Google Scholar
  114. Woodruff, D.S. (1989) The problems of conserving genes and species. In: Western, D. and Pearl, (eds)Conservation for the Twenty-First Century, pp. 76–88. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  115. Woodwell, G.M. (ed). (1990)The Earth in Transition: Patterns and Processes of Biotic Impoverishment. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Chapman & Hall 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Norman Myers
    • 1
  1. 1.Upper MeadowHeadington, OxfordUK

Personalised recommendations