Opening dialogue between the recent and the long ago

Douglas Erwin's call for palaeontologists to move towards a better understanding of diversity (Nature 462, 282–283; 2009) should be extended. Palaeoecologists should move beyond purely descriptive objectives and towards a better understanding of ecosystem evolution.

The worlds of palaeoecologists and ecologists are very much apart, and dialogue between the two remains muted. (One exception is the Quaternary, in which several key researchers have had a strong ecological background.)

Palaeoecologists working across geological time should, we suggest, familiarize themselves with the paradigms being debated in the ecological literature, and seek ways with which they could be examined in the fossil record. Palaeoecological research has to rely on uniformitarian assumptions using modern ecological analogues. Similarly, ecologists could be more sensitive to the limitations of data collection from the historical record, and could help frame modern studies to complement palaeoecological hypothesis testing.

The way modern and fossil ecosystems are described will necessarily be different, but researchers should strive to see whether the rules described for modern ecosystems hold over geological time. After all, the fossil record provides the only way to study changes in ecosystems over more than centennial timescales, along with samples of non-analogous ('extinct') ecosystems and habitats.

As first steps, palaeoecologists could publish in leading ecological journals and participate in ecological conferences.

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Louys, J., Bishop, L. & Wilkinson, D. Opening dialogue between the recent and the long ago. Nature 462, 847 (2009).

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