Two distinct regimes of extinction dynamic are present in the major marine zooplankton group, the graptolites, during the Ordovician and Silurian periods (486-418 Ma). In conditions of "background" extinction, which dominated in the Ordovician, taxonomic evolutionary rates were relatively low and the probability of extinction was highest among newly evolved species ("background extinction mode"). A sharp change in extinction regime in the Late Ordovician marked the onset of repeated severe spikes in the extinction rate curve; evolutionary turnover increased greatly in the Silurian, and the extinction mode changed to include extinction that was independent of species age ("high-extinction mode"). This change coincides with a change in global climate, from greenhouse to icehouse conditions. During the most extreme episode of extinction, the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction, old species were selectively removed ("mass extinction mode"). Our analysis indicates that selective regimes in the Paleozoic ocean plankton switched rapidly (generally in <0.5 My) from one mode to another in response to environmental change, even when restoration of the full ecosystem was much slower (several million years). The patterns observed are not a simple consequence of geographic range effects or of taxonomic changes from Ordovician to Silurian. Our results suggest that the dominant primary controls on extinction throughout the lifespan of this clade were abiotic (environmental), probably mediated by the microphytoplankton.