Document Type

Article

Publication Date

8-5-2014

Publication Title

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Abstract

Mass mortality events (MMEs) are rapidly occurring catastrophic demographic events that punctuate background mortality levels. Individual MMEs are staggering in their observed magnitude: re- moving more than 90% of a population, resulting in the death of more than a billion individuals, or producing 700 million tons of dead biomass in a single event. Despite extensive documentation of individual MMEs, we have no understanding of the major features characterizing the occurrence and magnitude of MMEs, their causes, or trends through time. Thus, no framework exists for contextualizing MMEs in the wake of ongoing global and regional perturbations to natural systems. Here we present an analysis of 727 published MMEs from across the globe, affecting 2,407 animal populations. We show that the magnitude of MMEs has been intensifying for birds, fishes, and marine invertebrates; invariant for mammals; and decreasing for reptiles and amphibians. These shifts in magnitude proved robust when we accounted for an increase in the occurrence of MMEs since 1940. However, it remains unclear whether the increase in the occurrence of MMEs represents a true pattern or simply a perceived increase. Regardless, the increase in MMEs appears to be associated with a rise in disease emergence, biotoxicity, and events produced by multiple interacting stressors, yet temporal trends in MME causes varied among taxa and may be associated with increased de- tectability. In addition, MMEs with the largest magnitudes were those that resulted from multiple stressors, starvation, and disease. These results advance our understanding of rare demographic processes and their relationship to global and regional perturba- tions to natural systems.

DOI

10.1073/pnas.1414894112

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