Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute and the Smithsonian Institution have pieced together a highly detailed picture of feeding relationships among 700 mammal, bird, reptile, fish, insect, and plant species from a 48 million year old lake and forest ecosystem.
Their analysis of fossilized remains from the Messel deposit near Frankfurt, Germany, provides the most compelling evidence to date that ancient food webs were organized much like modern food webs. Their paper describing the research appears online and open access this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
The researchers first compiled data about the more than 6,500 feeding relationships among 700 species found in the deposit, which dates to the Eocene epoch. Then they constructed two networks of feeding interactions one for the lake and one for the surrounding forest.
Next, they mathematically compared each food web's structural features with those of modern-day food web datasets matching up such indicators as fractions of cannibals, herbivores, and omnivores; the distributions of generalist and specialist feeders; the mean lengths of feeding chains connecting pairs of taxa; and so on.
"What we found is that the Messel lake food web, with 94 taxa and 517 links, looks very much like a modern food web," says SFI Professor Jennifer Dunne. "This is despite the fact that 48 million years of species turnover and evolution separate the Messel lake ecosystem from modern ecosystems."
Analysis of the Messel forest food web's structure was more challenging due to the high degree of species diversity represented in the Messel dataset 630 taxa and 5,534 feeding links far more than what datasets for modern webs include.
"Basically, we don't yet have examples of comprehensive modern terrestrial food web datasets that have the high resolution of plants, insects, and their interactions that we included in the Messel forest
|Contact: Jennifer Dunne|
Santa Fe Institute