Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History


RCN: Synthesizing Deep Time and Recent Community Ecology (DEB-1257625)

PI's: S. K. Lyons, A. K. Behrensmeyer, N. J. Gotelli


Steering Committee: K.L. Amatangelo J.L. Blois, S.L. Wing


Ecological systems contain many unique organisms that interact in complex ways with their biotic and abiotic environment. Understanding the structure and dynamics of these systems is a central goal of ecology. Traditional ecology knows a lot about the individual components of ecological systems but considerably less about the linkages between individuals, populations, communities and ecosystems - what holds these together or breaks them apart. Studies in deep time (103 – 107 yrs ago) can reveal how communities change or persist over evolutionary time and how they respond to major environmental shifts. This Research Coordination Network will bridge the gap between ecology and paleoecology and apply modern ecological theory to gain in-depth understanding of land-based faunas and floras of the past 400 ma. The RCN’s resources and expertise will focus on the following big question: What are the patterns and causal processes of animal and plant community assembly and disassembly over geological time and up to the present-day? This will generate new perspectives on change in the planet’s ecosystems before human impact, allow us to compare what is happening now, and give us some ideas about what may happen in the future.

The broader impacts from this coordinated RCN effort, include 1) a more comprehensive model for community assembly and disassembly that uses both neo- and paleo-ecological data and insights, 2) multiple research publications, 3) a Foundations of Paleoecology volume, 4) a database for communities of different land plants and animals over different scales of space and time, 5) research experience and training of undergraduates and graduate students 6) outreach to the general public through the new NMNH Deep Time exhibit and 7) games and teacher manuals to promote the teaching of new links between ecology and paleoecology in public schools.


Central Research Question and Goals: 2013-2017

We will focus our RCN’s resources and expertise on the following over-arching question: What are the patterns and causal processes of animal and plant community assembly and disassembly over geological time and up to the present-day? Although the group will generate testable hypotheses once meetings get underway, we include examples of initial hypotheses relating to our sub-questions:

1. What are the similarities and differences in organisms that make up communities that persist over time and then disappear (i.e., community assembly and disassembly), across major taxonomic groups (e.g., plants vs. animals, dinosaurs vs. mammals, gymnosperms vs. angiosperms) and different functional groups (e.g., body size, trophic associations, etc.)? Hypothesis: Taxa that co-occur at higher levels of probability than random association are habitat specialists limited by a specific set of resources in their environment (“resource limited habitat trackers”). These organisms persist through time (as chronofaunas or chronofloras) as long as their environmental requirements are met.

2. How does community assembly/disassembly play out over different spans of time (ecological to geological in scale) and over critical intervals of geological change? Are there different patterns during times of mass vs. background extinctions or protracted intervals of sustained environmental change? Hypothesis: Groups of taxa forming communities are more likely to persist through time if assembled over longer rather than shorter time periods. Likewise, such established communities track periods of sustained environmental change without significant alternation.

3. What is the evidence in the paleobiological record that ecological systems have thresholds or tipping-points beyond which system state changes occur rapidly? Are there positive feedbacks between the physical environment and ecological systems that underlie rapid changes from one kind of ecological organization to another? Hypothesis: Community re-assembly after a perturbation will involve the same group of taxa if the spatial and temporal scale of the perturbation does not exceed a threshold in which environmental resources cannot sustain viable relict populations of these taxa. The spatial and temporal scale of the critical threshold will vary with the type of organism (e.g., plants, large vertebrates, insects) and with the configuration of their ecosystem (overall size, resource patchiness, paleogeographic setting, etc.).

4. Are the relative contributions of processes involved in assembly/disassembly (e.g., speciation, extinction, immigration, emigration) different at different time scales? How do these contributions vary during times when biodiversity is maintained (relative stasis) versus times of accelerated turnover? How is organismic response during intervals of turnover reflected in subsequent recovery time lags? Hypothesis: Immigration and extinction have minimal impact on community structure unless these occur during times of environmental perturbation.

5. Are the relative contributions of processes involved in assembly/disassembly different in pre-human vs. human-dominated landscapes? Hypothesis: Human impact on community assembly and disassembly is similar in pattern to the effects of non-human environmental perturbations that cause community associations to change, but differs in the rate and unpredictability of these perturbations.

We will use a macroecological approach to bridge both evolutionary and ecological theory and theoretical and empirical perspectives. The questions above can only be addressed with a sustained, multi-year approach by an interdisciplinary network that will apply current ecological theory to specific case studies grounded in paleontological field and collections-based research. Through focused discussions among the participants, we will develop a framework of ecological traits (e.g., body size, abundance, functional group, etc.) that characterize plant and animal communities in both modern and fossil data and develop and test new quantitative methods for comparing these ecological traits across different time scales (e.g., geological time, historical time, the present) and across different taxonomic groups. Establishing this “common currency” for ecology and paleoecology will advance both fields by providing the foundation for new understanding of the character, pace, and predictability of community change. Such understanding is relevant to community assembly/disassembly in the past and in the future.


Core Group Members


Kate Lyons, NMNH - Paleo,

Kay Behrensmeyer, NMNH - Paleo

Nicholas Gotelli, University of Vermont


Steering Committee

Katie Amatangelo, Brown University

Jessica Blois, University of California, Merced

Scott Wing, NMNH - Paleo



Antoine Bercovici, Lund University

Rene Bobe, George Washington University

Bill DiMichele, NMNH - Paleo

Andrew Du, George Washington University

Jussi Eronen, University of Helsinki

Tyler Faith, University of Queensland

Gary Graves, NMNH - VZ

Carlos Jaramillo, NMNH - STRI

Nathan Jud, University of Maryland

Conrad Labandeira, NMNH - Paleo

Cindy Looy, University of California Berkeley

Brian McGill, University of Maine

David Patterson, George Washington University

Richard Potts, NMNH - Anthro

Brett Riddle, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Hans Sues, NMNH - Paleo

Rebecca Terry, Oregon State University

Anikó Tóth, NMNH - Paleo

Amelia Villasenor, George Washington University

Jack Williams, University of Wisconsin, Madison


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