One of the main motivations for our most recent paper (available here) was to gain insight into how modern ecosystems might behave in the future as they are subjected to increasing human-driven stresses. “Global change” biology is an emerging field that seeks to understand how the biosphere will change in response to factors such as ongoing climate change, habitat loss, landscape transformation, and so forth. Much of the work in this area rightfully focuses on measuring change, working to understand how modern ecosystems work, and projecting how they might respond in the future. The effort is ongoing, and includes theoretical work, controlled experiments, and uncontrolled impacts on natural systems. A limitation of these efforts, however, is the magnitude of the changes that are available for study. For example, we can observe how species are moving in space right now in response to rising environmental temperatures, or how they are adapting (or not) to drought conditions, but we cannot observe how they will respond in the future as those stressors continue to increase in magnitude. No one realistically expects the responses to increase linearly; we fully expect nonlinear, hard-to-predict, surprises. That was the message of an earlier paper, and a focus of a lot of current work on critical ecosystem transitions. One way to address this concern, and the one that we’ve taken, is to look back into Earth’s past, to times when the planet was similarly undergoing major changes. Those were natural experiments; times when ecosystems were subjected to extreme environmental stresses. The problem there of course is that we don’t have a Tardis, and all our information has to come from evidence that has been preserved in the geological record, and our ability to interpret it. Yes, the natural experiments were performed, but as I like to say, either no one kept notes, or the notebook was chewed up by the family dog before anyone had a chance to read it.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with an incomplete record yes, but it’s also the only record of how the biosphere has responded to truly dire circumstances. Our challenge is to take this incomplete record, and to extract from it data and ideas that are useful for forecasting how the biosphere might respond to future dire circumstances. In the case of our present study, we were able to take advantage of first-rate field paleontology, first-rate organismal paleontology, recent developments in theoretical ecology, and to combine those with our own methods for reconstructing paleo-food webs. And the main question which we were interested in was, “How would those food webs (important parts of the paleoecosystems) have responded to everyday types of disturbances, on the short-term, as the planet was busily falling apart?”
And the planet really was in trouble at the end of the Permian 252 million years ago. Siberia had opened up in one of the most magnificent episodes of volcanism in the last half billion years. Recent dating suggests the volcanism started about 300,000 years before the marine extinctions, and may have continued intermittently for another 500,000 years after. The knock-on effects probably included greenhouse warming, sulphurous atmosphere, ocean acidification and reductions of oceanic oxygen concentrations. In southern Africa, the location of the terrestrial ecosystem which we studied, the stage was set for a catastrophe of global proportions.