Compilation and network analyses of Cambrian food webs

Jennifer A. Dunne, Richard J. Williams, Neo D. Martinez, Rachel A. Wood, Douglas H. Erwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A rich body of empirically grounded theory has developed about food webs - the networks of feeding relationships among species within habitats. However, detailed food-web data and analyses are lacking for ancient ecosystems, largely because of the low resolution of taxa coupled with uncertain and incomplete information about feeding interactions. These impediments appear insurmountable for most fossil assemblages; however, a few assemblages with excellent soft-body preservation across trophic levels are candidates for food-web data compilation and topological analysis. Here we present plausible, detailed food webs for the Chengjiang and Burgess Shale assemblages from the Cambrian Period. Analyses of degree distributions and other structural network properties, including sensitivity analyses of the effects of uncertainty associated with Cambrian diet designations, suggest that these early Paleozoic communities share remarkably similar topology with modern food webs. Observed regularities reflect a systematic dependence of structure on the numbers of taxa and links in a web. Most aspects of Cambrian food-web structure are well-characterized by a simple "niche model,'' which was developed for modern food webs and takes into account this scale dependence. However, a few aspects of topology differ between the ancient and recent webs: longer path lengths between species and more species in feeding loops in the earlier Chengjiang web, and higher variability in the number of links per species for both Cambrian webs. Our results are relatively insensitive to the exclusion of low-certainty or random links. The many similarities between Cambrian and recent food webs point toward surprisingly strong and enduring constraints on the organization of complex feeding interactions among metazoan species. The few differences could reflect a transition to more strongly integrated and constrained trophic organization within ecosystems following the rapid diversification of species, body plans, and trophic roles during the Cambrian radiation. More research is needed to explore the generality of food-web structure through deep time and across habitats, especially to investigate potential mechanisms that could give rise to similar structure, as well as any differences.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere102
Pages (from-to)693-708
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2008


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