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Predator-prey relationships and trophic level reconstruction in a fossil fish community

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All living species occupy an ecological niche, and are positioned within a trophic hierarchy. Extinct organisms presumably held similar behavioral and coevolutionary characteristics in the past, and were susceptible to the same kinds of natural ecological pressures operating today. Paleoecological investigations are limited by the incompleteness of the fossil record, and particularly by a lack of behavioral data that are so fundamental to ecological studies of living communities and habitats. Opportunities to examine the coevolutionary structure of ancient communities from empirical data are extremely rare. One such opportunity is provided by the Lower Cretaceous Santana Formation of north-eastern Brazil, a series of richly fossiliferous strata approximately 110 million years old. Many fossil fishes from the Santana Formation contain identifiable prey, including decapod crustaceans and fishes. A trophic hierarchy of these organisms is reconstructed here, and their ecological relationships are discussed. Comparison is made with a similar fish fauna from the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone of Germany. Low-level, intermediate and high-level predators are identified in each fauna. Predator-prey relationships in the Santana fauna are strongly hierarchical, and are more focussed at the intermediate predator level than in Solnhofen. Comparison with a model of predator-prey relationships between fishes and benthic fauna of the Baltic Sea (which like the Araripe Basin represents a semi-enclosed environment) suggests that heavy predation on teleosts such asRhacolepis, occupying an intermediate trophic level, may have permitted benthic decapods to proliferate and exclude other benthic organisms. Less intense predation on fishes at the intermediate trophic level would allow their numbers to increase, thereby increasing the intensity of predation on the benthos at the base of the trophic hierarchy.

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Maisey, J.G. Predator-prey relationships and trophic level reconstruction in a fossil fish community. Environ Biol Fish 40, 1–22 (1994).

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