Abstract

One of the central goals in paleoecology is to understand the nature and consequences of biotic interactions. In marine systems, it has been argued that one of the major steps in the escalation of biotic interactions was marked by the origins of grazing fishes in the Cenozoic. Here I investigate the origins of herbivory and grazing in marine fishes using analyses of functional morphospace. Closing and opening lever ratios and relative length of the lower jaw are used to construct a plot of functional morphospace, a quantitative description of the potential feeding modes of fishes. Four fish faunas were examined, spanning the Mesozoic and Cenozoic (Triassic, Jurassic, Eocene and Recent). All three fossil faunas are from conservation Lagerstätten in the central Tethys, in the vicinity of coral reefs or coral-bearing hardgrounds. Changes in functional morphospace occupation reveal a marked shift in the Cenozoic, with the appearance of fishes with relatively small forceful jaws. In Recent faunas, this functional morphospace is occupied almost exclusively by grazing herbivores. This taxon-independent morphological signal of herbivory was lacking in the Mesozoic faunas, was first recorded in the Eocene, and persisted throughout the Cenozoic. This suggests that the Cenozoic did indeed witness the appearance and proliferation of herbivory and grazing by marine fishes. The arrival of these piscine herbivores had the potential to fundamentally alter the dynamics of benthic marine communities.

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