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Keywords:

  • Extinction;
  • fossils;
  • macroevolution;
  • morphological evolution;
  • paleobiology

Size is among the most important traits of any organism, yet the factors that control its evolution remain poorly understood. In this study, we investigate controls on the evolution of organismal size using a newly compiled database of nearly 25,000 foraminiferan species and subspecies spanning the past 400 million years. We find a transition in the pattern of foraminiferan size evolution from correlation with atmospheric pO2 during the Paleozoic (400–250 million years ago) to long-term stasis during the post-Paleozoic (250 million years ago to present). Thus, a dramatic shift in the evolutionary mode coincides with the most severe biotic catastrophe of the Phanerozoic (543 million years ago to present). Paleozoic tracking of pO2 was confined to Order Fusulinida, whereas Paleozoic lagenides, miliolids, and textulariids were best described by the stasis model. Stasis continued to best describe miliolids and textulariids during post-Paleozoic time, whereas random walk was the best supported mode for the other diverse orders. The shift in evolutionary dynamics thus appears to have resulted primarily from the selective elimination of fusulinids at the end of the Permian Period. These findings illustrate the potential for mass extinction to alter macroevolutionary dynamics for hundreds of millions of years.