National Academies Press: OpenBook

Effects of Past Global Change on Life (1995)

Chapter: Hierarchical Organization

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Suggested Citation:"Hierarchical Organization." National Research Council. 1995. Effects of Past Global Change on Life. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4762.
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THE RESPONSE OF HIERARCHIALLY STRUCTURED ECOSYSTEMS TO LONG-TERM CLIMATIC CHANGE: A CASE 150 STUDY USING TROPICAL PEAT SWAMPS OF PENNSYLVANIAN AGE cies replacement patterns, followed by ecosystem reorganization along different lines. During the Pennsylvanian, such major periods of extinction were rare, permitting the biotic-abiotic linkage to persist for millions of years. Figure 8.11 Comparison of species-, habitat-, and landscape-level changes in coal swamps during the upper Carboniferous. Habitat distributions are listed in a "range-through" fashion, based on first and last occurrence. Swamp type is a typological characterization of average quantitative landscape composition on a coal bed average basis. Hierarchical Organization These patterns are consistent with an interpretation of coal-swamp plant communities as hierarchically organized. Species have characteristic ecological amplitudes, which are more likely to be shared with closely related than distantly related species, at least in the less diverse, pre-angiosperm world. In a given habitat, the entire plexus of species defines a biotic network of evolved interactions. Loss of a few species from this network (extinction or extirpation) can be accommodated because the system has sufficient biotic linkages to be buffered; this notion runs counter to the findings of ecosystem models, where the greater the number of linkages, the lower is the stability of the system. Released resources and severed patterns of interaction are most likely to be utilized by species with similar morphological attributes. Particularly during the Carboniferous, in which ecosystems are strongly partitioned taxonomically, this means by a species related closely to the earlier occupant, and with similar growth form and life history. Thus, the ecomorphic-biotic structure of a habitat, given sufficient time to evolve, may strongly constrain the nature and dynamics of species replacement. Breakdown of the biotic habitat structure will occur during catastrophic extinction, as near the Westphalian-Stephanian boundary. The result is that the biotic fabric collapses and no longer can constrain the selection of replacement species. At such times the system may go into a lottery-like period of species interactions, perhaps controlled largely by interspecific competition (admittedly, this is almost impossible to document in the fossil record). The new system may reequilibrate and establish a new set of biotic limits to species replacement dynamics. The coal-swamp floras of the Stephanian bear close resemblance to Westphalian floras of the clastic wetlands (e.g., Pfefferkorn and Thomson, 1982). This suggests that many of the species or clades in Stephanian coal swamps

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What can we expect as global change progresses? Will there be thresholds that trigger sudden shifts in environmental conditions—or that cause catastrophic destruction of life?

Effects of Past Global Change on Life explores what earth scientists are learning about the impact of large-scale environmental changes on ancient life—and how these findings may help us resolve today's environmental controversies.

Leading authorities discuss historical climate trends and what can be learned from the mass extinctions and other critical periods about the rise and fall of plant and animal species in response to global change. The volume develops a picture of how environmental change has closed some evolutionary doors while opening others—including profound effects on the early members of the human family.

An expert panel offers specific recommendations on expanding research and improving investigative tools—and targets historical periods and geological and biological patterns with the most promise of shedding light on future developments.

This readable and informative book will be of special interest to professionals in the earth sciences and the environmental community as well as concerned policymakers.

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