Ecosystem engineers, resilience, and climate change through Earth history

University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Sciences

As an 1851 Fellow, I will harness the predictive power of the fossil record of ecosystem engineers to answer the overarching research question: How have marine ecosystem engineers helped maintain healthy ecosystems during ancient climate-driven extinction events? Ecosystem engineers are a type of keystone taxa whose behaviours help maintain the availability of resources in their environments. Because they promote biodiversity and alleviate the environmental stress caused by climate change, marine ecosystem engineers – such as coral reefs and filter-feeding molluscs – are often priorities for conservation efforts. If they are lost, the ecosystems they maintain and protect will be under amplified threat from climate change and are likely to rapidly collapse without the support of their keystone ecosystem engineers. To understand their importance before they are driven to extinction, we can turn to the fossil record of the rise and fall of marine ecosystem engineers through ancient climate crises to predict what may lie ahead. Utilising the fossil record, I will answer three driving questions: How has the evolution of marine ecosystem engineers impacted biodiversity in the ocean through Earth history? How does the survival and extinction of marine ecosystem engineers affect how life recovers after mass extinction events? Is extinction severity predicted from abiotic climate-driven stress alone underestimated because it overlooks the role of losing ecosystem engineers? Answering these questions will generate data that can help predict the fate of modern ecosystem engineers and whether their extinction would lead to cascades of more severe ecological collapse. Ecosystem engineering has never been studied in the fossil record on this scale. Previous research in this field has been limited to a few taxonomic groups, including my previous research on ancient sediment-mixing ecosystem engineers. Expanding to new taxonomic groups and establishing detectable relationships between ecosystem engineers and macroecological change is a major advance in investigating the long-term impacts of ecosystem engineers on life in past, present, and future oceans. This research will be truly pioneering, generating the first evidence of the long-term impacts of losing or preserving ecosystem engineers through severe climate change events on patterns of marine biodiversity.