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Paleoecology (also spelt palaeoecology) uses data from fossils and subfossils to reconstruct the ecosystems of the past. It involves the study of fossil organisms and their associated remains (e.g. shells, teeth, pollen, and seeds), which can be used to interpret their life cycle, living interactions, natural environment, communities, and manner of death and burial. Such interpretations aid the reconstruction of past environments (i.e. paleoenvironment).
The fossil record has been studied to try and clarify the relationship animals have to their environment, in part to help understand the current state of biodiversity. A close link has been found between vertebrate taxonomic and ecological diversity, that is, the diversity of animals and the niches they occupy.
Reconstruction and measurement
The aim of paleoecology is therefore to build the most detailed model possible of the life environment of previously living organisms found today as fossils. Such reconstruction takes into consideration complex interactions among environmental factors such as temperatures, food supplies, and degree of solar illumination. Often much of this information is lost or distorted by the fossilization process or diagenesis of the enclosing sediments, making interpretation difficult.
The environmental complexity factor is normally tackled through statistical analysis of the available numerical data (quantitative paleontology or paleostatistics), while the study of post-mortem processes is known as the field of taphonomy.
Much of the original paleoecological research has focused on the last two million years (the Quaternary period), because older environments are less well represented in the fossil timeline of evolution. Indeed, many studies concentrate on the Holocene epoch (the last 11,500 years), or the last glacial stage of the Pleistocene epoch (the Wisconsin/Weichsel/Devensian/Würm glaciation of the ice age, from 50,000 to 11,500 years ago). Such studies are useful for understanding the dynamics of ecosystem change and for reconstructing pre-industrialization ecosystems. Many public policy decision-makers have pointed to the importance of using palaeoecological studies as a basis for choices made in conservation ecology.
- Historical ecology
- Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (peer-reviewed journal)
- Sahney, S., Benton, M.J. and Ferry, P.A. (2010). "Links between global taxonomic diversity, ecological diversity and the expansion of vertebrates on land" (PDF). Biology Letters 6 (4): 544–547. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.1024. PMC 2936204. PMID 20106856.
- Charles D.F.; Whitehead D. R.; Engstrom D. R.; et al. (1987) Paleoliminological evidence for recent acidification of Big Moose Lake, Adirondack Mountains, New-York (USA). Biogeochemistry, 3, 267-296, doi=10.1007/BF02185196.