Insect-damaged fossil leaves record food web response to ancient climate change and extinction

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62 Scopus citations


Plants and herbivorous insects have dominated terrestrial ecosystems for over 300 million years. Uniquely in the fossil record, foliage with well-preserved insect damage offers abundant and diverse information both about producers and about ecological and sometimes taxonomic groups of consumers. These data are ideally suited to investigate food web response to environmental perturbations, and they represent an invaluable deep-time complement to neoecological studies of global change. Correlations between feeding diversity and temperature, between herbivory and leaf traits that are modulated by climate, and between insect diversity and plant diversity can all be investigated in deep time. To illustrate, I emphasize recent work on the time interval from the latest Cretaceous through the middle Eocene (67-47 million years ago (Ma)), including two significant events that affected life: the end-Cretaceous mass extinction (65.5 Ma) and its ensuing recovery; and globally warming temperatures across the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (55.8 Ma). Climatic effects predicted from neoecology generally hold true in these deep-time settings. Rising temperature is associated with increased herbivory in multiple studies, a result with major predictive importance for current global warming. Diverse floras are usually associated with diverse insect damage; however, recovery from the end-Cretaceous extinction reveals uncorrelated plant and insect diversity as food webs rebuilt chaotically from a drastically simplified state. Calibration studies from living forests are needed to improve interpretation of the fossil data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)486-502
Number of pages17
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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