Although it is clear a massive loss of biodiversity occurred in the Later Devonian, the extent of time during which these events took place is uncertain, with estimates ranging from 500,000 to 25 million years, extending from the mid-Givetian to the end-Famennian. Nor is it clear whether it concerned two sharp mass extinctions or a series of smaller extinctions, though the latest research suggests multiple causes and a series of distinct extinction pulses through an interval of some three million years. Some consider the extinction to be as many as seven distinct events, spread over about 25 million years, with notable extinctions at the ends of the Givetian, Frasnian, and Famennian stages.
By the late Devonian, the land had been colonized by plants and insects. In the oceans were massive reefs built by corals and stromatoporoids. Euramerica and Gondwana were beginning to converge into what would become Pangaea. The extinction seems to have only affected marine life. Hard-hit groups include brachiopods, trilobites, and reef-building organisms; the reef-building organisms almost completely disappeared. The causes of these extinctions are unclear. Leading hypotheses include changes in sea level and ocean anoxia, possibly triggered by global cooling or oceanic volcanism. The impact of a comet or another extraterrestrial body has also been suggested, such as the Siljan Ring event in Sweden. Some statistical analysis suggests the decrease in diversity was caused more by a decrease in speciation than by an increase in extinctions. This might have been caused by invasions of cosmopolitan species, rather than any single event. Surprisingly, jawed vertebrates seem to have been unaffected by the loss of reefs or other aspects of the Kellwasser event, while agnathans were in decline long before the end of the Frasnian.
During the Late Devonian, the continents were arranged differently, with a supercontinent, Gondwana, covering much of the Southern Hemisphere. The continent of Siberia occupied the Northern Hemisphere, while an equatorial continent, Laurussia (formed by the collision of Baltica and Laurentia), was drifting towards Gondwana, closing the Iapetus ocean. The Caledonian mountains were also growing across what is now the Scottish Highlands and Scandinavia, while the Appalachians rose over America.
The biota was also very different. Plants, which had been on land in forms similar to mosses, liverworts, and lichens since the Ordovician, had just developed roots, seeds, and water transport systems that allowed them to survive away from places that were constantly wet—and consequently built huge forests on the highlands. Several different clades had developed a shrubby or tree-like habit by the Late Givetian, including the cladoxylalean ferns, lepidosigillarioid lycopsids, and aneurophyte and archaeopterid progymnosperms. Fish were also undergoing a huge radiation, and the first tetrapods, such as Tiktaalik, were beginning to evolve leg-like structures.
Extinction rates appear to have been higher than the background rate for an extended period lasting the last 20–25 million years of the Devonian. During this period, about eight to ten distinct events can be seen, of which two stand out as particularly severe. The Kellwasser event was preceded by a longer period of prolonged biodiversity loss. The fossil record of the following first 15 million years of the Carboniferous is largely void of terrestrial animal fossils, likely related to losses during the end-Devonian Hangenberg event. This period is known as Romer's gap.