Abstract

The set of environmental conditions under which a taxon can survive and maintain viable populations, known as the ecological niche, is a fundamental determinant of a taxon's distribution. Because of the central importance of ecological niches, they have been assumed to remain relatively stable during intervals of morphological stasis. However, the assumption of niche stability has rarely been tested directly with fossil data spanning multiple temporal intervals. Thus, the conditions under which this assumption is likely to be accurate are not well understood. In this study, we use ecological niche modeling (ENM) to reconstruct the ecological niche for 11 genera of marine benthos (crinoids, trilobites, molluscs, bryozoans, and corals) from the Type Cincinnatian Series (Late Ordovician, Katian Stage) across nine temporal intervals spanning approximately three million years. This interval includes both abiotic environmental change (gradual sea-level fall) and biotic change (rapid pulses of the Richmondian Invasion), thus allowing the relative effect of different environmental perturbations to be constrained. A previous symmetrical analysis of niche stability of brachiopod species recovered an increase in niche evolution following the Richmondian Invasion. Herein we test the generality of the brachiopod pattern within the community. Niche stability was evaluated in geographic space, ecological space, and niche parameter space. Niche stability varied through time; during the Pre-Invasion interval, taxa exhibited niche stability during gradual shallowing of sea level in the basin, whereas niche evolution became more common during the Richmondian Invasion. Taxa adjusted to the increased competition by altering aspects of their niche. Notably, surviving taxa contracted their niche into a subset of their previous niche parameters. This represents an adaptive response to increased competition for resources with the newly established invader taxa, and it was employed most successfully by generalist taxa. Patterns of niche evolution were congruent between clades, among feeding styles, and across taxonomic levels.

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