Early establishment of vertebrate trophic interactions: Food web structure in Middle to Late Devonian fish assemblages with exceptional fossilization


Authors: Chevrinais M, Jacquet C, Cloutier R

Article in press: Received 21 November 2016; Accepted in revised form 25 April 2017; Online 22 September 2017

Keywords: digestive contents, fossil fish, Devonian, ecomorphology, palaeoecology, bottom-up control, top-down control,

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In past and present ecosystems, trophic interactions determine material and energy transfers among species, regulating population dynamics and community stability. Food web studies in past ecosystems are helpful to assess the persistence of ecosystem structure throughout geological times and to explore the existence of general principles of food web assembly. We determined and compared the trophic structure of two Devonian fish assemblages [(1) the Escuminac assemblage (ca. 380 Ma), Miguasha, eastern Canada and (2) the Lode assemblage (ca. 390 Ma), Straupe, Latvia] with a closer look at the Escuminac assemblage. Both localities are representative of Middle to Late Devonian aquatic vertebrate assemblages in terms of taxonomic richness (ca. 20 species), phylogenetic diversity (all major groups of lower vertebrates) and palaeoenvironment (palaeoestuaries). Fossil food web structures were assessed using different kinds of direct (i.e. digestive contents and bite marks in fossils) and indirect (e.g. ecomorphological measurements, stratigraphic species co-occurrences) indicators. First, the relationships between predator and prey body size established for the Escuminac fishes are comparable to those of recent aquatic ecosystems, highlighting a consistency of aquatic food web structure across geological time. Second, non-metric dimensional scaling on ecomorphological variables and cluster analysis showed a common pattern of functional groups for both fish assemblages; top predators, predators, primary and secondary consumers were identified. We conclude that Devonian communities were organized in multiple trophic levels and that size-based feeding interactions were established early in vertebrate history.