High-resolution (annual to decadal) paleoecological records of community composition can contribute a long-term perspective to conservation biology on baseline ecological variability and the response of communities to environmental change. We present here a detailed comparison of species assemblage characteristics (species richness, abundance, composition, and occurrence frequency) in live, dead, and recent fossil ostracode samples from Lake Tanganyika, East Africa. This study calibrates the fidelity of paleoecological samples (i.e., both death and fossil assemblages) to live diversity patterns for the purpose of reconstructing community dynamics through time.

Both life and death assemblages were collected from rocky sites in a mixed substrate habitat (total of ten sampling visits over 22-month period) over spatial scales of less than a meter to about 3–12 meters. Fossil assemblages were derived from sediment cores collected in sandy substrates adjacent to the rocky sites. Species richness in paleoecological assemblages is comparable to that in a year's accumulation of life assemblages sampled approximately monthly. The temporal resolution of the fossil samples in Lake Tanganyika could thus be as short as one year. Species abundance distributions were statistically indistinguishable among data sets. Rank abundance tests demonstrated that death and fossil assemblages were quite similar, although life assemblages differed substantially in the composition of their dominant species. Species composition differences between life and paleoecological assemblages appear to reflect the area of spatial integration represented by an assemblage—i.e., death and fossil assemblages are integrated over multiple habitat types, whereas life assemblages dominantly represent the rocky habitats where they were collected. Species occurrence frequencies in paleoecological data identified ecologically persistent species and may be useful for delimiting local species pools. Analysis of sampling efficiency indicates that approximately 28% of species in each paleoecological assemblage are “unique”; i.e., they are not likely to be present in an additional subsample from the same sample. Ordination reveals that life assemblages of ostracodes are characterized by high spatiotemporal heterogeneity. Variability in species composition was lower in paleoecological assemblages, presumably as a result of spatial and temporal averaging.

Death and fossil assemblages of Lake Tanganyika appear to preserve many characteristics of living benthic ostracode assemblages with high fidelity. Spatiotemporal averaging allows paleoecological assemblages to render information about the average composition of ostracode communities over short timescales, at spatial scales of several meters, and across habitat types. Sampling shell assemblages in surficial sediments thus represents a more efficient way of assessing the average ecological conditions at a locality than repeated live sampling. Furthermore, paleoecological analyses can generate novel insights into long-term community variability and membership with direct relevance to conservation.

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