PerspectiveECOLOGY/PALEONTOLOGY

How stable are food webs during a mass extinction?

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Science  02 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6256, pp. 38-39
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2729

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Summary

As we confront the reality of the ongoing human-driven mass extinction (1), attention often focuses on the response of individual species to environmental change. However, species survival also depends on other species in the food web: Changing population numbers or extinction of one species can propagate through the food web to cause further perturbation or extinction. Although this has long been appreciated (2), it is hard to test predictions of how food webs of living ecosystems will be affected by disturbance. The fossil record provides a window into how past food webs have responded to mass extinction. On page 90 of this issue, Roopnarine and Angielczyk (3) assess food web stability of the remarkably well-preserved terrestrial communities of the Karoo Basin in South Africa across the largest past mass extinction, the Permian-Triassic event (∼252 million years ago).