The extinction occurred , and marks the boundary between the Ordovician and following Silurian period. During this extinction event there were several marked changes in biologically responsive carbon and oxygen isotopes. This complexity may indicate several distinct closely spaced events, or particular phases within one event.
At the time, most complex multicellular organisms lived in the sea, and around 100 marine families became extinct, covering about 49% of faunal genera (a more reliable estimate than species). The brachiopods and bryozoans were decimated, along with many of the trilobite, conodont and graptolite families.
Statistical analysis of marine losses at this time suggests that the decrease in diversity was mainly caused by a sharp increase in extinctions, rather than a decrease in speciation.
These extinctions are currently being intensively studied; the most commonly accepted theory is that they were triggered by the onset of a long ice age, perhaps the most severe glacial age of the Phanerozoic, in the Hirnantian faunal stage that ended the long, stable greenhouse conditions typical of the Ordovician. The event was preceded by a fall in atmospheric CO2, which selectively affected the shallow seas where most organisms lived. As the southern supercontinent Gondwana drifted over the South Pole, ice caps formed on it. The strata have been detected in late Ordovician rock strata of North Africa and then-adjacent northeastern South America, which were south-polar locations at the time. Glaciation locks up water from the world-ocean, and the interglacials free it, causing sea levels repeatedly to drop and rise; the vast shallow intra-continental Ordovician seas withdrew, which eliminated many ecological niches, then returned, carrying diminished founder populations lacking many whole families of organisms. Then they withdrew again with the next pulse of glaciation, eliminating biological diversity at each change (Emiliani 1992 p. 491). In the North African strata, Julien Moreau reported five pulses of glaciation from seismic sections ( IGCP meeting September 2004 reports pp 26f).
This incurred a shift in the location of bottom-water formation, shifting from low latitudes, characteristic of greenhouse conditions, to high latitudes, characteristic of icehouse conditions, which was accompanied by increased deep-ocean currents and oxygenation of the bottom-water. An opportunistic fauna briefly thrived there, before anoxic conditions returned. The breakdown in the oceanic circulation patterns brought up nutrients from the abyssal waters. Surviving species were those that coped with the changed conditions and filled the ecological niches left by the extinctions.
Scientists from the University of Kansas and NASA have suggested that the initial extinctions could have been caused by a gamma ray burst originating from an exploding star within 6,000 light years of Earth (within a nearby arm of the Milky Way Galaxy). A ten-second burst would have stripped the Earth's atmosphere of half of its ozone almost immediately, causing surface-dwelling organisms, including those responsible for planetary photosynthesis, to be exposed to high levels of ultraviolet radiation. This would have killed many species and caused a drop in temperatures. While plausible, there is no unambiguous evidence that such a nearby gamma ray burst has ever actually occurred.
The end of the second event occurred when melting glaciers caused the sea level to rise and stabilize once more. The rebound of life's diversity with the permanent re-flooding of continental shelves at the onset of the Silurian saw increased biodiversity within the surviving orders.
A major current (2004–08) project of UNESCO's International Geoscience Programme (IGCP), following a successful probe of the Ordovician biodiversification, has as its major objective to seek the possible physical and chemical causes, related to changes in climate, sea level, volcanism, plate movements, and extraterrestrial influences, of the Ordovician biodiversification, this end-Ordovician extinction, and the ensuing Silurian radiation