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Dramatic shift from simple to complex marine ecosystems occurred 250M years ago at mass extinction

CHICAGO--The earth experienced its biggest mass extinction about 250 million years ago, an event that wiped out an estimated 95% of marine species and 70% of land species. New research shows that this mass extinction did more than eliminate species: it fundamentally changed the basic ecology of the world's oceans.

Ecologically simple marine communities were largely displaced by complex communities. Furthermore, this apparently abrupt shift set a new pattern that has continued ever since. It reflects the current dominance of higher-metabolism, mobile organisms (such as snails, clams and crabs) that actually go out and find their own food and the decreased diversity of older groups of low-metabolism, stationary organisms (such as lamp shells and sea lilies) that filter nutrients from the water.

So says embargoed research to be published in Science on November 24, 2006. An accompanying article suggests that this striking change escaped detection until now because previous research relied on single numbers--such as the number of species alive at one particular time or the distribution of species in a local community--to track the diversity of marine life. In the new research, however, scientists examined the relative abundance of marine life forms in communities over the past 540 million years.

One reason they were able to do this is because they tapped the new Paleobiology Database (http://www.pbdb.org), a huge repository of fossil occurrence data. The result is the first broad objective measurement of changes in the complexity of marine ecology over the Phanerozoic.

"We were able to combine a huge data set with new quantitative analyses," says Peter J. Wagner, Associate Curator of Fossil Invertebrates at The Field Museum and lead author of the study. "We think these are the first analyses of this type at this large scale. They show that the end-Permian mass extinction permanently altered not just taxonomic
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Contact: Greg Borzo
gborzo@fieldmuseum.org
312-665-7106
Field Museum
23-Nov-2006


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