A rich body of empirically grounded theory has developed about food webs—the networks of feeding relationships among species within habitats. However, detailed food-web data and analyses are lacking for ancient ecosystems, largely because of the low resolution of taxa coupled with uncertain and incomplete information about feeding interactions. These impediments appear insurmountable for most fossil assemblages; however, a few assemblages with excellent soft-body preservation across trophic levels are candidates for food-web data compilation and topological analysis. Here we present plausible, detailed food webs for the Chengjiang and Burgess Shale assemblages from the Cambrian Period. Analyses of degree distributions and other structural network properties, including sensitivity analyses of the effects of uncertainty associated with Cambrian diet designations, suggest that these early Paleozoic communities share remarkably similar topology with modern food webs. Observed regularities reflect a systematic dependence of structure on the numbers of taxa and links in a web. Most aspects of Cambrian food-web structure are well-characterized by a simple “niche model,” which was developed for modern food webs and takes into account this scale dependence. However, a few aspects of topology differ between the ancient and recent webs: longer path lengths between species and more species in feeding loops in the earlier Chengjiang web, and higher variability in the number of links per species for both Cambrian webs. Our results are relatively insensitive to the exclusion of low-certainty or random links. The many similarities between Cambrian and recent food webs point toward surprisingly strong and enduring constraints on the organization of complex feeding interactions among metazoan species. The few differences could reflect a transition to more strongly integrated and constrained trophic organization within ecosystems following the rapid diversification of species, body plans, and trophic roles during the Cambrian radiation. More research is needed to explore the generality of food-web structure through deep time and across habitats, especially to investigate potential mechanisms that could give rise to similar structure, as well as any differences.
Food webs, which depict the networks of feeding interactions among co-occurring species, display many regularities in their structure. For example, the distributions of links to prey and links from predators, the percentages of omnivores and herbivores, and the mean trophic level of species change systematically with the number of taxa and feeding links in a web. Such “scale-dependent” regularities are formalized by network models based on a few simple link distribution rules that successfully predict the network structure of complex food webs from a variety of habitats. To explore how long such regularities may have persisted, we compiled and analyzed detailed food-web data for two ancient fossil assemblages from the early Paleozoic, when rapid diversification of multicellular species, body plans, and trophic roles occurred. Our analyses show that for most aspects of network structure, the Early Cambrian Chengjiang Shale and Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale food webs are very similar to modern webs. This suggests that there are strong and enduring constraints on the organization of feeding interactions in ecosystems. However, a few differences, particularly in the Chengjiang Shale web, suggest that some aspects of network structure were still in flux during early phases of de novo ecosystem construction.
Analyses of Chengjiang and Burgess Shale food-web data suggest that most, but not all, aspects of the trophic structure of modern ecosystems were in place over a half-billion years ago.