It was an Anomalocaris-eat-trilobite world, filled with species like nothing on today's Earth. But the ecology of Cambrian communities was remarkably modern, say researchers behind the first study to reconstruct detailed food webs for ancient ecosystems. Their paper, published this week in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, suggests that networks of feeding relationships among marine species that lived hundreds of millions of years ago are remarkably similar to those of today.
Food webs depict the feeding interactions among species within habitats--like food chains, only more complex and realistic. The discovery of strong and enduring regularities in how such webs are organized will help us understand the history and evolution of life, and could provide insights for modern ecology--such as how ecosystems will respond to biological extinctions and invasions.
A multidisciplinary group of scientists led by ecologist Jennifer Dunne of the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computational Ecology Lab in Berkeley, California, studied the food webs of sea creatures preserved in rocks from the Cambrian, when there was an explosion of diversity of multicellular organisms--including early precursors to today's species as well as many strange animals that were evolutionary dead ends. Report co-author Richard Williams of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, developed the cutting edge "Network3D" software that was used for analysis and visualization of the food webs.
The researchers compiled data from the 505 million-year-old Burgess Shale in British Columbia, Canada and the even earlier Chengjiang Shale of eastern Yunnan Province, China, dating from 520 million years ago. Both fossil-rich assemblages are unusual because they have exquisitely preserved soft-body parts for a wide range of species. They determined who was eating whom by piecing together a variety of clues. There was the occasional
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