Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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The Program

The Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program (ETE) at the National Museum of Natural History investigates Earth's land biotas throughout their 400 million year history. Our goal is to understand how terrestrial ecosystems have been structured and how they change over geologic time. Using the fossil record, ETE scientists study the characteristics of ecological communities and the changing dynamics of ecosystems. Paleoecological analyses determine patterns through time in community structure and composition, investigate the effects of ecological change on individual lineages, and relate patterns of stasis or change to environmental and other processes that influence ecosystem formation, sustainability, and collapse.

ETE research reflects a conviction that we must study the geological past to understand how ecosystems function and how they react to major environmental crises. There appears to be no precedent for such crises in the recent past, but in the immense span of Earth history there are abundant examples of environmental change and its biotic effects. Our aim is to provide historical perspective on present-day biodiversity, and we believe that this perspective is essential to understanding processes that will control biodiversity in the future.

The Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program was formed by a group of paleontologists, who study the evolutionary paleoecology of land ecosystems. They share the conviction that long-term patterns of evolutionary change cannot be fully understood without knowledge of changes in ecology over geologic time periods and an understanding of the interaction between ecological and evolutionary processes. This interest not only lies in how the environment has changed, but how ecosystems themselves have changed, and how evolution has occurred in ecological context over the last 400 million years. The ETE Program is affiliated with the Departments of Paleobiology and Anthropology (Human Origins Program) at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Activities

The ETE Program has supported many individual research projects, organized and sponsored symposia and workshops at NMNH and national meetings, and contributed to academic programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Maryland, and the George Washington University. In 1992 the book Terrestrial Ecosystems Through Time was published, generating syntheses of paleoecological information. The ETE database captures and organizes fossil evidence concerning land biotas in support of ETE’s research objectives.

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