Palaeoecology: Methods


Paleoecology investigates the ecology of extinct organisms in relation to their environments and community assemblages. Major aims of paleoecology include the documentation of taxonomic occurrences and abundances across time and space and the reconstruction of species‐ to community‐level ecological traits. Although methodologically similar to the techniques of neontological ecologists, the discipline is distinct for its deeper temporal perspective capturing long‐term processes that shape Earth's ecological patterns. The foundational components of paleoecological research are the study of taphonomy, or the processes by which organic remains become incorporated into the fossil record, and methods that standardise the sampling and counting of individuals and species. The development and integration of a diverse array of paleoecological methods and data have broadened the scope of paleoecology to gain insight into the processes shaping both ancient and modern communities and inform conservation strategies for ecosystems undergoing rapid anthropogenic‐driven changes today.

Key Concepts

  • Paleoecologists study ancient organisms and ecosystem dynamics over evolutionary timescales.
  • Taphonomic studies have shown that the quality of ecological information preserved in the fossil record is high.
  • The preservation potential of organic remains is a function of depositional environment as well as structural, chemical and behavioural characteristics of an organism.
  • Sample standardisation is an important consideration for paleoecological data collection and analysis.
  • Paleoecological methods can vary depending on the organism and ecosystem of interest as well as the temporal and spatial scale of analysis.
  • Paleoecological findings are now being applied to questions in conservation biology.
  • Biography information: Tara M Smiley is a paleontologist with a research focus on small‐mammal paleoecology and biogeography over geologic timescales.
  • Biography information: Rebecca C Terry is a paleoecologist and taphonomist with a research focus on small‐mammal community dynamics through the Holocene.

Keywords: ecology; paleontology; fossil assemblages; taphonomy; preservation; terrestrial ecosystems; marine ecosystems; conservation paleobiology; rarefaction

Figure 1. Ecospace utilisation analyses showing the changes in the average relative abundances (based on specimen counts) of tiering (a), motility (b) and feeding types (c) between mid‐Paleozoic (461–359 Ma) and late Cenozoic (23–0.01 Ma) fossil assemblages. For the two Cenozoic data sets, the 95% error bars represent simple sampling uncertainty, and they were calculated by a two‐stage boostrap procedure that resampled (with replacement) both the specimens in each sample and the samples used to calculate each mean, thus adding together the uncertainty generated by both stages of sampling (number of iterations = 50 000). For the Paleozoic data (third row), the error bars represent the range of values resulting from different assumptions about the strength of the bias against aragonite preservation. The shaded bars show the bias‐simulated results assuming that 40% of the individuals in the average original community were aragonitic. The ‘taphonomic error bars’ encompass the raw data (bases of triangles; assumes no disolution bias) and the bias‐simulated data for 70% aragonitic specimens (uncapped ends of lines). The Paleozoic data do not have sampling error bars, but they would be of the same magnitude as those shown for the Cenozoic data. Reproduced with permission from Bush et al. © The Paleontological Society.
Figure 2. Temporal and spatial distribution of fossil pollen samples over eastern North America. The left plot shows the number of samples per 1000 year time bins over the past 21 000 years. The right plot demonstrates a highly variable ‘space–time’ cloud of samples (grey dots), with the z‐axis representing time. Black crosses on the underlying map mark the location of sites and black circles above the map represent ‘modern’ samples (within the past 150 years). These data have been used to assess vegetation dynamics, including the formation of nonanalogue communities and geographic range shifts, in response to climate change. Paleoecological databases facilitate the collection and analysis of such data sets. Reproduced from Brewer et al. © Elsevier.
Figure 3. The scales of spatial and temporal averaging in fossil assemblages for different major groups of organisms, in continental (a) and benthic marine (b) depositional settings. Reproduced with permission from Behrensmeyer et al. © The Paleontological Society.
Figure 4. The taphonomic processes and circumstances that, during the fossilisation of organic remains, have potential to modify the original biological signal at different postmortem phases. Reproduced from Behrensmeyer and Kidwell © The Paleontological Society.
Figure 5. Dental features in relation to diet in two carnivoran species' tooth rows (top left, carnivorous red fox Vulpes vulpes; bottom left, herbivorous giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and two rodent species' tooth rows (top right, carnivorous golden‐bellied water rat Hydromys chrysogaster; bottom right, herbivorous Rothschild's woolly rat Mallomys rothschildi). Three‐dimensional reconstructions for the buccal–occlusal and occlusal dental surfaces are shown, along with corresponding dental metrics. Crown height and surface curvature metrics, such as orientation patch count (OPC), quantify dental variation across taxa and can be used to distinguish dietary categories among vertebrates. Reproduced with permission from Evans et al. © Nature Publishing Group.


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Further Reading

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Dietl GP, Kidwell SM, Brenner M, et al. (2015) Conservation paleobiology: leveraging knowledge of the past to inform conservation and restoration. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 43: 79–103.

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Smiley, Tara M, and Terry, Rebecca C(Jan 2017) Palaeoecology: Methods. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003274.pub2]