Chapter by:

Jansen A. Smith, Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York

This chapter was initially publicly mutual on March 13, 2020.

You are watching: To understand paleoecology, it is important to

Chapter citation:

J.A. Smith. 2020. Paleoecology. In: The Digital Encyclopedia of Old Life.

Chapter contents:

Paleoecology ←– 1. Paleoecological Reconstruction– 2. Biogeochemical Analysis and Paleoecology– 3. Predation in Paleoecology–– 3.1 Insect Herbivory in the Fossil Record–– 3.2 Drilling Predation in the Fossil Record–– 3.3 Dinosaur Predation in the Fossil Record


Paleoecology is the research of interactions in between once-living organisms and their environmental surroundings. Interactions between organisms have the right to take a range of creates, including competition between similar organisms for sources, predation of one organism by one more, and symbiosis in between different organisms to permit each organism to make it through and reproduce. This is much from an exhaustive list, and also we will check out these and also other concepts in this chapter. Biotic interactions—interactions between organisms as soon as they are/were living—are only part of the paleoeco-friendly story. Abiotic variables—non-living features of the settings wbelow organisms live, prefer temperature, water depth, and also amount of rainfall—strongly influence wbelow organisms are uncovered, just how they live, and how they communicate with each various other. When researching paleoecology, every one of these components have to be pieced together favor a big puzzle to understand how life on Planet when lived.


A paleoeco-friendly rebuilding and construction of twoMajungasaurussearching a sauropod dinosaur. Image developed by ABelov2014; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Afavor 3.0 Unported license.

As the name suggests, paleoecology shares many kind of similarities with ecology, the study of living organisms and also their interactions via their biotic and also abiotic surroundings. Indeed, many of the theories and also principles of paleoecology have actually their beginnings in eco-friendly studies. For instance, the idea of a community—a predictable collection of species co-emerging under a given collection of environmental conditions—was emerged by the research of living organisms well prior to the principle was extended to the paleontological realm. Even through this close relationship, the nature of the fossil document dictates numerous distinctions from ecology that have to be thought about in paleoecology.

First and foremany, a paleoecologist cannot straight observe organisms in their atmospheres bereason the organisms being stupassed away have actually been dead for a very long time. In contrast, ecologists deserve to go right into the world to observe the organisms they study. For example, if an ecologist wanted to understand the choices of a bird for different kinds of berries, they deserve to go watch the bird as it chooses what to eat.


A little bird, the yellow-vented bulbul, aboriginal to southeastern Asia eating tiny blue berries while sitting on a tree branch.Picture by Passionatephotog; Creative Commones Attribution-Share Aprefer 4.0 International license.

Paleoecologists carry out not have this deluxe. Similarly, ecologists have the right to experiment with their organisms in the laboratory. Returning to our bird instance, an ecologist has the choice to capture a couple of of the birds they want to research, store them in the laboratory, and also market the birds different kinds of berries to quantify berry preference in a controlled environment. As we’ll check out later in this chapter, paleoecologists execute sometimes conduct experiments with living organisms, and deserve to learn from studies by ecologists; yet, there are numerous complicating components and also presumptions that a paleoecologist must consider as soon as applying ideas emerged through researches of living organisms to research studies of fossil organisms.

Complicating factors

Amongst the potentially complicating factors a paleoecologist may must take into consideration, taphonomy, time-averaging, and also habitat mixing are frequently at the optimal of the list (learn even more in the chapter on the Nature of the Fossil Record). Here we will certainly discover these three topics as they related to paleoenvironmental interpretations.


Taphonomy is a area of examine involved through the procedures that influence the remains of organisms from the time the organism dies to the time it is studied—including points that occur during study! Many type of of these processes change, if not damage, organic continues to be. For instance, when a fish dies in the ocean, a scavenger might eat it or waves from a storm might reason the skeleton to break acomponent. These are just two potential events among many kind of that might occur. Collectively, this suite of processes that affect organismal stays can be compared between organisms of different species—or in between people of the exact same species—as preservational predisposition. As discussed in the chapter on the Nature of the Fossil Record, organisms with hard parts, choose bones or clam shells, are even more most likely to be kept in the fossil record than organisms through only soft parts, favor worms or jellyfish. Thinking of these examples, it would certainly be exact to say that the fossil document is biased versus the conservation of jellyfish compared to clams. Many kind of of the differences in preservational predisposition in between organisms are a lot less noticeable than those in between a jellyfish and also a clam. For example, a round snail shell and a fairly flat clam shell—both of which are made of the same fundamental material, calcium carbonate, and also have the right to be about the very same size—could be even more or less most likely to break depending upon the geological procedures connected as the loose beach sediments turn right into rock. From the perspective of a paleoecologist, these issues of taphonomy and preservational predisposition can be problematic and also so it is important that a paleoecologist tries to understand also them before studying the interactions of the organisms in a fossil assemblage through each various other and their environment. In some cases, organisms can be totally lacking from the assemblage, or they can be numerically underrepresented—compared to what we would certainly have actually expected if we had actually been able to research the actual living community—if they were not most likely to endure taphonomic processes. Generally, these types of problems do not prevent a paleoecological research, but at the exceptionally least they must be recognized and debated when trying to analyze the fossil document.


As with taphonomy and also preservational bias, a prudent paleoecologist additionally requirements to understand also the degree to which the assemblage they are studying has actually been “time-averaged.” Time-averaging suggests that the people in an assemblage (e.g., two fossil shells discovered alongside each other) did not live together at the exact same time. Instead, years, years, centuries, or also longer periods of time may have passed in between the times as soon as the people were alive. To understand also time-averaging, Dr. Susan Kidwell—a leading researcher on taphonomy and time-averaging—presents the concern via the analogy of picking clothing up off of a messy teenager’s bedroom floor. In this scenario, imagine a teenager comes home from institution eincredibly day, alters their cloths and also leaves them on the floor in their bedroom. One day this could encompass a nice shirt and slacks from a presentation at institution, on one more day possibly tright here are sweaty athletic apparel from gym class. At the finish of the week, the garments on the bedroom floor are all jumbled up and inserted right into a laundry basket.


Looking at the laundry in the baskets or on the bed, it is possible to guess the seaboy, or just how many days of clothes are stood for, but identifying the cloths worn on a details day would certainly be incredibly difficult. Imperiods from WikiHow; Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Afavor 3.0 Creative Commons license.

Looking at the apparel in the basket, another perchild might acknowledge some trends. Perhaps it is wintertime, so tbelow are a number of pairs of pants, long sleeve shirts, and sweaters. By looking at these collected posts of clothes, you could guess the seakid. Based on the size of the garments, possibly you can also guess the age and also size of the teenager. Tright here is a lot information to be got from this time-averaged set of clothes. But, tbelow are additionally some questions that are even more difficult to answer. With no even more information than the clothing in the laundry basket, would you have the ability to tell what the teenager was wearing on the Tuesday of the week? The answer is virtually absolutely “no.” The cloths are all blended together; you most likely would certainly not even have the ability to tell which shirt was worn through which pair of pants.

Returning to paleoecology, similar broad trends could be recognized, choose the basic habitat stood for by organisms in a fossil assemblage, however finer details could not be attainable. Just as via taphonomy, these issues of time-averaging are regularly unpreventable yet that does not expect paleoecology is futile. Instead, time-averaging have the right to provide information about the average set of conditions over a longer period of time. For a paleoecologist, the a lot of necessary thing is that the question they are trying to answer have the right to sensibly be assessed making use of the information that are obtainable. With time-averaging, just choose we can not have the ability to number out exactly what the teenager was wearing on Tuesday, we could not have the ability to figure out the exact composition of a area at any type of provided suggest in time. But, choose we would have the ability to determine the seaboy or size of the teenager, we have the right to understand also the average complace of a community via time. The essential is to ask concerns that are suited to the easily accessible information.

Habitat mixing

Another essential consideration for paleoecologists is the level to which individuals from various habitats have actually been blended together in a fossil assemblage. Sometimes this deserve to happen bereason individuals living at or roughly the very same time obtain combined together by waves, storm events, or various other forces that can relocate organismal continues to be. These processes lead to spatial mixing. Other times, the mixture of individuals from various habitats occurs as a consequence of time-averaging. That is, the individuals in an assemblage may truly have actually lived and passed away in the very same geographic location but, because the assemblage accumulated over a long period of time (e.g., hundreds or hundreds of years), the habitat existing in that offered location might have adjusted. For instance, if sea level wregarding increase, what when was a shallow estuarine habitat might become a deeper continental shelf habitat.

From a sedimentological standpoint, habitats have the right to be thought about as depositional atmospheres. Each depositional setting has unique features that are observable in the geological record. For instance, the Abyssal depositional environment tends to have actually extremely fine-grained sediments choose clays; the Deltaic setting often tends to have sands; and also the Alluvial setting tends to have actually cobbles and boulders. As visualized by the colors on the side panels of the three dimensional photo, the depositional setting in any type of one place can readjust over time, which may result in habitat mixing for fossils. Image by Mikenorton; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Achoose 3.0 Unported license.

Just like all the determinants currently debated, this habitat mixing has actually the potential to change the outcomes of a paleoecological research. Often, paleoecologists will usage what they know around the organisms in their assemblages to separate the organisms based upon the habitats wright here they likely lived so that they deserve to research the palecoecology of a solitary habitat. This can be vital bereason the species in a area, and also the associated biological and also ecological interactions, are likely to vary habitat by habitat. Usually, as soon as examining paleoecology, only one or a small variety of components are assessed. In order to isolate the variable of interest, it is important to save as many type of various other things as feasible the same, like the habitat.

Key assumptions

As you may have already discovered in reading various other chapters of this online textbook, choose “Nature of the Fossil Record” or “Types of Fossil Preservation,” the fossil document is incomplete and also tbelow is often indevelopment absent. In addition to being selective of the inquiries they ask and audit for components favor taphonomy, time-averaging, and habitat mixing, paleoecologists frequently also make presumptions about the organisms they are studying. Although it is generally good to minimize the number of assumptions being made, it is regularly not possible to avoid making presumptions all together. The assumptions made in any kind of given study are regularly particular to that research and the data that are easily accessible, yet tright here are 2 common presumptions we will certainly take into consideration here: uniformitarianism and also the paleoneighborhood.


Uniformitarianism is a typically provided presumption in the geological sciences based on the premise that procedures and organisms in the previous worked similarly to processes and also organisms we observe now. To show, think about the force of gravity. You constantly suffer gravity, after all, it is what keeps you grounded right here on Planet, literally. Do you think organisms in the past skilled gravity prefer you do? Given that the mass of Planet has not adjusted much in the last few million years, it is most likely safe to assume that, yes, previously living organisms experienced gravity just favor you perform this day. This very same principle of uniformitarianism have the right to additionally be extfinished to processes prefer the deposition of sediment, taphonomy, and erosion, simply to name a few. The idea of taxonomic uniformitarianism is an expansion of this larger idea. Just like we have the right to assume gravity worked in the previous as it does this particular day, paleoecologists often assume that the organisms they observe and examine in the fossil document operated similarly to their living loved ones. The even more closely related 2 organisms are, the much less uncertainty tright here is in this assumption. Brief of having actually a time machine, we will most likely never be 100% particular that these procedures and organisms have actually always functioned in the very same way, yet a lot of the evidence we carry out have actually argues that it is reasonable to assume that they have actually in many cases.

The Paleocommunity

Another common assumption in paleoecology is that the organisms uncovered in a fossil assemblage deserve to be considered as a area. To understand this presumption, it is essential to revisit the definitions of paleoecology and area. Paleoecology is the examine of organisms and also, critically, their interactions via each other and via the neighboring non-living environment. A community, as identified in an environmental sense, is a set of people, representing multiple species, co-developing in room and time. Based on these 2 definitions—and also the procedures of taphonomy, time-averaging, and habitat mixing—perform you think the organisms in a fossil assemblage represent a community? The answer to this question likely relies on the assemblage. Sometimes, tbelow will certainly be extremely bit time-averaging, no habitat mixing, and also restricted taphonomy—in this case, the fossil assemblage might extremely well reexisting a actual area. This form of assemblage regularly represents a rapid interment occasion wbelow all organisms passed away and were buried very conveniently, choose the Ashloss Fossil Beds in Nebraska.


Multiple Teleoceras, an extinct genus of rhinoceros, individuals at the Ashautumn Fossil Beds in Nebraska. All of these indivuals likely passed away at the same time and also were exceptionally maintained in the ash that led to their death. Photo by Ammodramus; Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domajor Dedication.

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In other assemblperiods, organisms might have lived countless years apart, resided in bordering habitats, and/or been removed completely or transformed by taphonomic procedures. In this second situation, whether the assemblage is thought about a area frequently counts on the concerns being asked by the paleoecologist. It is reasonably widespread to speak to this a “paleoarea,” which acknowledges that people in the assemblage might not have co-occurred but, nonetheless, it will certainly be assumed that they coexisted and connected. Viewed from a slightly various perspective, a paleoneighborhood have the right to be thought about a recurring collection of associated species. In this second perspective—still through the underlying assumption that individuals connected and also coexisted even if this might not have been true—these associations of species are frequently thmust have actually been from the same habitat. As with all assumptions in scientific study, there are cases wbelow this presumption may not be proper and also there is some controversy in the area of paleoecology concerning the validity of this assumption. For the objectives of this chapter, however, we will assume that fossil assembleras perform reexisting actual, interacting areas.