Numerous environmental factors as well as oceanic circulation patterns and geographic constraints all contribute to the abundance, distribution, and diversity of present-day marine phytoplankton assemblages. These same factors presumably affected the Paleozoic marine phytoplankton, which was dominated by organic-walled acritarchs and prasinophytes. During the Late Silurian (Gorstian, Ludfordian, and Přídolí) and earliest Devonian (Lochkovian), important paleogeographic, paleooceanographic, and geochemical changes were occurring as well as major compositional changes and diversity fluctuations in the marine organic-walled phytoplankton. Innovative morphologies appeared during the Late Silurian, in both low and high latitude assemblages, but with significant quantitative differences. This was followed by a turnover in assemblage composition during the Silurian/Devonian transition, and an initial radiation of new acritarch and prasinophyte taxa in the Early Devonian.
Observed changes in total phytoplankton diversity during the Gorstian through earliest Lochkovian are based on organic-walled microphytoplankton data derived from published and unpublished key stratigraphic sections where independent age control has been firmly established. These key sections are from: Missouri and Oklahoma, U.S.A. and western Newfoundland, Canada (Laurentia); Gotland, Sweden, and Podolia, Ukraine (Baltica); the Welsh Basin and Borderland (Avalonia); northern France and northern Spain (Armorica); and Libya in northern Africa, and Argentina and Bolivia, South America (Gondwana). Regional biodiversity changes for the organic-walled microphytoplankton were determined for the warm low latitude areas (Baltica, Laurentia, and Avalonia) and temperate to cool higher latitude areas (northern and southern Gondwana).
The Late Silurian–earliest Devonian organic-walled phytoplankton was divided into three major categories to facilitate comparison of compositional fluctuations, both within stratigraphic sections as well as between geographic areas. The three categories, based on overall morphology, are marine chlorophytes and prasinophytes, marine acritarchs, and nonmarine types, including coenobial forms. This triparate grouping is both broad and detailed enough to mark critical changes in both the phytoplankton assemblages, as well as the paleoenvironment. In general, high phytoplankton diversity peaks occurred during the Early and Late Gorstian in the warm low latitude areas, followed by varying fluctuations during the Ludfordian and Přídolí for both the warm low latitude and cool high latitude areas. An initial radiation of new phytoplankton taxa and the appearance of more cosmopolitan assemblages mark the beginning of the Lochkovian.