We present a new three-dimensional theoretical ecospace for the ecological classification of marine animals based on vertical tiering, motility level, and feeding mechanism. In this context, analyses of a database of level-bottom fossil assemblages with abundance counts demonstrate fundamental changes in marine animal ecosystems between the mid-Paleozoic (461–359 Ma) and late Cenozoic (23–0.01 Ma). The average local relative abundance of infaunal burrowers, facultatively motile animals, and predators increased, whereas surface dwellers and completely non-motile animals decreased in abundance. Considering tiering, motility, and feeding together, more modes of life had high to moderate average relative abundance in the Cenozoic than in the Paleozoic. These results are robust to the biasing effects of aragonite dissolution in Paleozoic sediments and to heterogeneities in the latitudinal and environmental distributions of collections. Theoretical ecospace provides a unified system for future analyses of the utilization of ecologic opportunities by marine metazoa.

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