Assessing the influence of the solar orbit on terrestrial biodiversity
Bailer-Jones, Coryn A. L.
The terrestrial fossil record shows a significant variation in the extinction and origination rates of species during the past half-billion years. Numerous studies have claimed an association between this variation and the motion of the Sun around the Galaxy, invoking the modulation of cosmic rays, gamma rays, and comet impact frequency as a cause of this biodiversity variation. However, some of these studies exhibit methodological problems, or were based on coarse assumptions (such as a strict periodicity of the solar orbit). Here we investigate this link in more detail, using a model of the Galaxy to reconstruct the solar orbit and thus a predictive model of the temporal variation of the extinction rate due to astronomical mechanisms. We compare these predictions as well as those of various reference models with paleontological data. Our approach involves Bayesian model comparison, which takes into account the uncertainties in the paleontological data as well as the distribution of solar orbits consistent with the uncertainties in the astronomical data. We find that various versions of the orbital model are not favored beyond simpler reference models. In particular, the distribution of mass extinction events can be explained just as well by a uniform random distribution as by any other model tested. Although our negative results on the orbital model are robust to changes in the Galaxy model, the Sun's coordinates, and the errors in the data, we also find that it would be very difficult to positively identify the orbital model even if it were the true one. (In contrast, we do find evidence against simpler periodic models.) Thus, while we cannot rule out there being some connection between solar motion and biodiversity variations on the Earth, we conclude that it is difficult to give convincing positive conclusions of such a connection using current data.