XXII.4 The scope of extinction at higher taxon levels can be quantified using a number of models, the simplest of which is the foot soldier in the field model

A species become extinct when all its members die.Higher taxa become extinct when all the species that they encompass become extinct.The basic model of extinction assumes that the individual species become extinct independently of one another.If, for example, ten taxa at the highest level are considered, of which each can be divided into ten taxa at the central level and each of these taxa contains ten species then, for example, if, during a certain period in which speciation does not occur, 90% of species die at random, simultaneously 35% of taxa at the central level become extinct and probably only 0.003% of taxa at the highest level (i.e. in this case, probably none).More realistic models, which consider unequal numbers of species and taxa in various taxa at the same level, yield somewhat different numbers, but the results are basically similar.

For example, the number of species that became extinct during the greatest known mass extinction 248 million years ago at the end of the Permian has been estimated by the method of reverse rarefication on the basis of the number of extinct genera and families on the actual distribution of species in the individual taxa as 96% (the newest estimates yield somewhat lower values).The model describing the extinction of higher taxa on the basis of the independent random extinction of their individual species is called the foot soldier in the field model.Even if 90% of foot soldiers were shot and killed, most probably “only” 35% of ten-membered squadrons would be killed, only about 4% of platoons consisting of 3 squadrons and only about 0.008% of troops consisting of 3 platoons, etc.It is apparent that such a model would not apply to a real battle.Either the individual troops and their platoons wouldn’t all attack at once and be mixed up, but in a certain order, or, for example, some of the members of each formation would be left behind somewhere and would most probably survive.In the former case, more of them would be wiped out while, in the second case, fewer higher formations (higher taxa) would disappear than would correspond to the number of dead foot soldiers.

            Study of paleontological material demonstrates that, even for the extinction of higher taxa, the foot soldier in the field model does not adequately describe the real situation.For example, it is improbable that all the taxa of the numerous and extremely diversified trilobite taxon could have died in the Paleozoic or that both orders of dinosaurs (Saurischia and Ornithischia) would have become extinct at the end of the Mesozoic.It is apparent that, at least in some periods of the history of life, membership in a taxon affected which species would become extinct and which would survive.However, the foot soldier in the field model is an extremely useful instrument from the methodological point of view as it represents the zero hypothesis against which other more complicated and more realistic models can be tested.

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The classical Darwinian theory of evolution can explain the evolution of adaptive traits only in asexual organisms. The frozen plasticity theory is much more general: It can also explain the origin and evolution of adaptive traits in both asexual and sexual organisms Read more
Draft translation from: Evoluční biologie, 2. vydání (Evolutionary biology, 2nd edition), J. Flegr, Academia Prague 2009. The translation was not done by biologist, therefore any suggestion concerning proper scientific terminology and language usage are highly welcomed. You can send your comments to flegratcesnet [dot] cz. Thank you.