The long-term ecology and evolution of marine reptiles in a Jurassic seaway



Marine reptiles flourished in the Mesozoic oceans, filling ecological roles today dominated by crocodylians, large fish, sharks and cetaceans. Many groups of these reptiles coexisted for over 50 million years (Myr), through major environmental changes. However, little is known about how the structure of their ecosystems or their ecologies changed over millions of years. We use the most common marine reptile fossils—teeth—to establish a quantitative system that assigns species to dietary guilds and then track the evolution of these guilds over the roughly 18-million-year history of a single seaway, the Jurassic Sub-Boreal Seaway of the United Kingdom. Groups did not significantly overlap in guild space, indicating that dietary niche partitioning enabled many species to live together. Although a highly diverse fauna was present throughout the history of the seaway, fish and squid eaters with piercing teeth declined over time while hard-object and large-prey specialists diversified, in concert with rising sea levels. High niche partitioning and spatial variation in dietary ecology related to sea depth also characterize modern marine tetrapod faunas, indicating a conserved ecological structure of the world’s oceans that has persisted for over 150 Myr.

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Fig. 1: Morphospace plots showing the distribution of marine reptile specimens based on tooth morphology.
Fig. 2: Morphospace plots showing the distribution of marine reptile clades based on tooth morphology through time.
Fig. 3: Partial disparity of Jurassic Sub-Boreal Seaway marine reptiles, mapped against global sea level.


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We thank D. Hutchinson and I. Gladstone (BRSMG), M. Riley (CAMSM), P. Tomlinson (DORCM), N. Clark (GLAHM), S. Etches (MJML), L. Steel (NHMUK), E. Howlett and H. Ketchum (OUMNH), and E. Jarvis, S. King and S. Ogilvy (YORYM) for access and guidance during D.F.’s visits to the museum collections. D.F.’s museum visits were funded by the Small Grant Scheme ‘2015 Wood Award’ (PASW201402), Systematics Research Fund and Richard Owen Research Fund by the Palaeontographical Society. M.T.Y. and S.L.B. are supported by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project grant (RPG-2017-167), and S.L.B. is supported by a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (630652). We thank P. dePolo for comments on the manuscript, and M. Puttick and T. Guillerme for discussion and technical support.

Author information

D.F. led the project, conceived the study and wrote the initial draft manuscript. M.T.Y. and S.L.B. helped develop the project, edited drafts and provided guidance on the statistical analyses. S.L.B. wrote the final manuscript, which was revised by all authors. D.F. designed and performed the analyses with technical support from T.L.S. and K.G.D.

Correspondence to Davide Foffa.

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Supplementary Datasets 1-4

Specimen-character matrix; non-parametric MANOVA tests results; results of LDA group classifications; sensitivity analyses of guild groupings

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Foffa, D., Young, M.T., Stubbs, T.L. et al. The long-term ecology and evolution of marine reptiles in a Jurassic seaway. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1548–1555 (2018).

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