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Mass extinctions do not explain skew in interspecific body size distributions


  • This manuscript has not been published elsewhere and is not under consideration for publication elsewhere.

Corresponding author: Melanie J. Monroe (

Contributing author: Folmer Bokma (


In several higher animal taxa, such as mammals and birds, the distribution of species body sizes is heavily skewed towards small size. Previous studies have suggested that small-bodied organisms are less prone to extinction than large-bodied species. If small body size is favourable during mass extinction events, a post mass extinction excess of small-bodied species may proliferate and maintain skewed body size distributions sometime after. Here, we modelled mass extinctions and found that even unrealistically strong body mass selection has little effect on the skew of interspecific body size distributions. Moreover, selection against large body size may, counter intuitively, skew size distributions towards large body size. In any case, subsequent evolutionary diversification rapidly erases these rather small effects mass extinctions may have on size distributions. Next, we used body masses of extant species and phylogenetic methods to investigate possible changes in body size distributions across the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction. Body size distributions of extant clades that originated during the Cretaceous are on average more skewed than their subclades that originated during the Paleogene, but the difference is only minor in mammals, and in birds, it can be explained by a positive relationship between species richness and skewness that is also present in clades that originated after the transition. Hence, we cannot infer from extant species whether the K-Pg mass extinctions were size-selective, but they are not the reason why most extant bird and mammal species are small-bodied.