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Quantifying the randomness of extinctions

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Extinctions occur either randomly or in a more deterministic and predictable manner, with certain characteristics making some species more vulnerable to (local) extinction than others. Although the quantification of extinction randomness would better our understanding of the extinction causes and increase the predictability of future species losses, few quantification methods are currently available. To this purpose, we propose two indices based on a comparison of an a priori (expected) extinction series with an observed one. Whereas the first index requires data on the order of extinctions, the second index is only concerned with which species went extinct and which did not. Using a model for generating extinction data, we tested both indices successfully for accordance with the robustness prerequisites. Index outputs were furthermore unaffected by species richness, apart from decreased variation with rising species numbers. Because of its independence of non-extinct species and its focus on extinction sequences, the first randomness index seems especially useful for use in paleontological and paleo-ecological research. The second index is likely a good tool to study shorter term extinctions, for which the extinction order is often not known and for which the comparison with species that did persist is of greater interest. We use a real dataset to illustrate this. Finally, we discuss how it is possible to expand the use of this index toward identifying previously unknown extinction-promoting species characteristics, and toward a credible assessment of the extinction risk posed by global change.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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