The challenge of paleoecological stasis: Reassessing sources of evolutionary stability

Paul J. Morris, Linda C. Ivany, Kenneth M. Schopf, Carlton E. Brett

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The paleontological record of the lower and middle Paleozoic Appalachian foreland basin demonstrates an unprecedented level of ecological and morphological stability on geological time scales. Some 70-80% of fossil morphospecies within assemblages persist in similar relative abundances in coordinated packages lasting as long as 7 million years despite evidence for environmental change and biotic disturbances. These intervals of stability are separated by much shorter periods of ecological and evolutionary change. This pattern appears widespread in the fossil record. Existing concepts of the evolutionary process are unable to explain this uniquely paleontological observation of fauna-wide coordinated stasis. A principle of evolutionary stability that arises from the ecosystem is explored here. We propose that hierarchical ecosystem theory, when extended to geological time scales, can explain long-term paleoecological stability as the result of ecosystem organization in response to high-frequency disturbance. The accompanying stability of fossil morphologies results from 'ecological locking,' in which selection is seen as a high-rate response of populations that is hierarchically constrained by lower-rate ecological processes. When disturbance exceeds the capacity of the system, ecological crashes remove these higher-level constraints, and evolution is free to proceed at high rates of directional selection during the organization of a new stable ecological hierarchy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11269-11273
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number24
StatePublished - Nov 21 1995
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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