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Common species link global ecosystems to climate change

By Bjarte Hannisdal, Kristian Agasøster Haaga, Trond Reitan, David Diego, Lee Hsiang Liow

Posted 15 Mar 2016
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/043729 (published DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0722)

Common species shape the world around us, and changes in their commonness signify large-scale shifts in ecosystem structure and function. Dominant taxa drive productivity and biogeochemical cycling, in direct interaction with abiotic components of the Earth system. However, our understanding of the dynamic response of ecosystems to global environmental changes in the past is limited by our ability to robustly estimate fossil taxonomic richness, and by our neglect of the importance of common species. To rectify this, we use observations of the most common and widespread species to track global changes in their distribution in the deep geological past. Our simple approach is robust to factors that bias richness estimators, including widely used sampling-standardization methods, which we show are highly sensitive to variability in the species-abundance distribution. Causal analyses of common species frequency in the deep-sea sedimentary record detect a lagged response in the ecological prominence of planktonic foraminifera to oceanographic changes captured by deep-ocean temperature records over the last 65 million years, encompassing one of Earth's major climate transitions. Our results demonstrate that common species can act as tracers of a past global ecosystem and its response to physical changes in Earth's dynamic history.

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