An evaluation of the history of polysyringian species (filibranchs and eulamellibranchs) reveals that the huge early Pliocene bivalve fauna of the Mediterranean Basin (MB) and North Sea Basin (NSB) suffered heavy extinction during late Pliocene and early Pleistocene time. This is evidenced by low survivorship of early Pliocene species in the Recent and by a decline in species richness of the two basins from 323 known early Pliocene species to 198 living species.
Several kinds of evidence indicate that cooling rather than the areal effect of eustatic sea-level lowering was the primary cause of the excessive extinction: (1) heavy Plio-Pleistocene extinction of mollusks was not global but concentrated around the margins of the northern Atlantic—an ocean fringed by polar ice caps; (2) taxa of tropical affinities were most severely affected; (3) heavy extinction occurred in the MB in areas not marked by facies change; (4) in the MB the onset of extinctions coincided with the onset elsewhere, but because of tectonic activity, water depths in the MB were not under tight eustatic control; (5) 14 species present in both the MB and NSB during early Pliocene time are now restricted to waters south of the NSB; and (6) the majority of species common to the two basins during the early Pliocene (eurythermal species) have survived to the present.
Molluscan data support palynological evidence that the climate in the MB was warmer and less seasonal in early Pliocene time than today, when latitudinal temperature gradients are steeper. Molluscan evidence indicates that the North Sea is exceptional in being less seasonal (though cooler) today than in early Pliocene time, and we attribute this anomaly to the local effects of the Gulf Stream, which was strengthened in mid-Pliocene time by the uplift of the Isthmus of Panama.
The heavy extinction in the MB and NSB about 3.2–3.0 ma ago approximately coincided with the earliest deposition of glacial tills in Iceland and with isotopic shifts in the tests of planktonic foraminifers preserved in deep-sea cores. Additional heavy extinction probably coincided with a pulse of severe cooling in late Pliocene time, 2.5–2.4 ma ago. Heavy extinction of mollusks in the MB and NSB continued into the early Pleistocene but not into the middle and late Pleistocene, apparently because by this time it was primarily only eurythermal species that survived. Today the molluscan faunas of the MB and NSB are unusually eurythermal; few species are restricted to a single biogeographic province.