Olszewski, T. D.,Erwin, D. H.

The fossil record preserves numerous natural experiments that can shed light on the response of ecological communities to environmental change. However, directly observing the community dynamics of extinct organisms is not possible. As an alternative, neutral ecological models(1-3) suggest that species abundance distributions reflect dynamical processes like migration, competition, recruitment, and extinction. Live-dead comparisons suggest that such distributions can be faithfully preserved in the rock record(4). Here we use a maximum-likelihood approach to show that brachiopod (lamp shell) abundance distributions from four temporally distinct ecological landscapes from the Glass Mountains, Texas (of the Permian period), exhibit significant differences. Further, all four are better fitted by zero-sum multinomial distributions, characteristic of Hubbell's neutral model(2), than by log-normal distributions, as predicted by the traditional ecological null hypothesis(5). Using the neutral model as a guide, we suggest that sea level fluctuations spanning about 10 Myr altered the degrees of isolation and exchange among local communities within these ecological landscapes. Neither these long-term environmental changes nor higher-frequency sea level fluctuations resulted in wholesale extinction or major innovation within evolutionary lineages.