Nevertheless, the researchers were able to show that the Messel forest web is likely comparable in structure to modern webs, by using models to account for differences in structure that would result from the many more taxa and interactions in the Messel data.
The results are significant because they show that the Messel ecosystem developed a modern ecological structure, along with a modern biota, in a relatively brief 18 million year period following Earth's most recent die-off, the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, which disrupted ecosystem dynamics on a massive scale and served as a species diversity bottleneck.
Dunne says that beyond the ecological and evolutionary significance of the study, the work resulted in the most highly resolved, detailed, and comprehensive terrestrial food web ever compiled.
"We want our data to serve as a challenge to ecologists to compile more highly and evenly resolved food web data for extant systems," she says.
Ancient food webs are particularly difficult to reconstruct because data about them is usually limited and of low quality. But the Messel shale deposit is unique. Scientists hypothesize that releases of toxic volcanic gases rendered the area's air and water lethal to most life in a short time. Animals in and near the lake were overwhelmed, and, along with plants, sunk to the low-oxygen depths of the lake where they were smothered in mud and fossilized, soft tissue and all.
The Messel includes outstanding evidence of feeding interactions, including stomach contents and bite marks in soft tissues that can be traced back to particular species' mouth parts, Dunne says.
"Compiling such a highly resolved food web was possible for the Messel because of the exquisite preservation of soft body parts and ecological traces in the deposit," she says, "and because my co-author, Conrad Labandeira, is one of the world's foremost experts on fossil plant-insect
|Contact: Jennifer Dunne|
Santa Fe Institute