The relative influence of niche vs. neutral processes in ecosystem dynamics is an on-going debate, but the extent to which they structured the earliest animal communities is unknown. Some of the oldest known metazoan-dominated paleocommunities occur in Ediacaran age (~ 565 million years old) strata in Newfoundland, Canada and Charnwood Forest, UK. These comprise large and diverse populations of sessile organisms that are amenable to spatial point process analyses, enabling inference of the most likely underlying niche or neutral processes governing community structure. We mapped seven Ediacaran paleocommunities using LiDAR, photogrammetry and a laser line probe. We found that neutral processes dominate these paleocommunities, with niche processes exerting limited influence, in contrast with the niche-dominated dynamics of modern marine ecosystems. The dominance of neutral processes suggests that early metazoan diversification may not have been driven by systematic adaptations to the local environment, but instead may have resulted from stochastic demographic differences.
- neutral theory
- spatial point process analysis