In post-Cambrian time, five events—the end-Ordovician, end-Frasnian in the Late Devonian, end-Permian, end-Triassic, and end-Cretaceous—are commonly grouped as the “big five” global intervals of mass extinction. Plotted by magnitude, extinction intensities for all Phanerozoic substages show a continuous distribution, with the five traditionally recognized mass extinctions located in the upper tail. Plotted by time, however, proportional extinctions clearly divide the Phanerozoic Eon into six stratigraphically coherent intervals of alternating high and low extinction intensity. These stratigraphic neighborhoods provide a temporal context for evaluating the intensity of extinction during the “big five” events. Compared with other stages and substages in the same neighborhood, only the end-Ordovician, end-Permian, and end-Cretaceous extinction intensities appear as outliers. Moreover, when origination and extinction are considered together, only these three of the “big five” events appear to have been generated exclusively by elevated extinction. Low origination contributed more than high extinction to the marked loss of diversity in the late Frasnian and at the end of the Triassic. Therefore, whereas the “big five” events are clearly times when diversity suffered mass depletion, only those at the end of the Ordovician, Permian, and Cretaceous periods unequivocally qualify as globally distinct mass extinctions. Each of the three has a unique pattern of extinction, and the diversity dynamics of these events differ, as well, from the other two major diversity depletions. As mass depletions of diversity have no common effect, common causation seems unlikely.
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Vol. 30 • No. 4