A model is developed to explore the potential responses of paleocommunities to disruptions of primary production during times of mass extinction and ecological crisis. Disruptions of primary production are expected to generate bottom-up cascades of secondary extinction, and these are predictable given species richnesses, functional diversity, and trophic link distributions. If, however, consumers are permitted to compensate for the loss of trophic resources by increasing the intensities of their remaining biotic interactions, top-down driven catastrophic increases of secondary extinction emerge from the model. Both bottom-up and top-down effects are themselves controlled by the geometry of the food webs. The general Phanerozoic trends of increasing taxonomic and ecological diversities, as well as the varying strengths of biotic interactions, have led to food webs of increasing complexity. The frequency of catastrophic secondary extinction increases as food web complexity increases, but increased complexity also serves to dampen the magnitude of the secondary extinctions. When intraguild competitive interactions are included in the model, competitively inferior taxa are observed to possess greater probabilities of survival if the guilds are embedded in simple subnetworks of the overall food web. The result is the emergence of postextinction guilds dominated by those inferior taxa. These results are congruent with empirical observations of “disaster taxa” dominance after some mass extinction events, and provide a mechanism for the reorganization of ecosystems that is observed after those events. The model makes the testable prediction that dominance by disaster taxa, however, should be observed only when bottom-up disruptions have caused ecosystems to collapse catastrophically.

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