Relative abundance data are of primary importance in paleoecology, but it is not always obvious how they should be interpreted. Because relative abundance is expressed as a proportion of the total sample, change in the abundance of one group necessarily changes the relative abundance of all groups in the sample. There are two possible interpretations for a trend in the relative abundance of a taxon: an “active” scenario in which the trend reflects change in the population density of the group itself, or a “passive” scenario in which the change is driven by population changes in other taxa. To discriminate between these scenarios it is necessary to collect absolute abundance data (abundance expressed as a function of sample area or volume).
We examine both absolute and relative abundance trends through a major paleoecological transition: the shift from trilobite-dominated to brachiopod-dominated paleocommunities in shallow marine carbonates spanning the Lower/Middle Ordovician boundary in western Utah and eastern Nevada. We sampled 61 carbonate mudstone and wackestone beds from the upper Ibex Series (Lower Ordovician) and lower Whiterock Series (Middle Ordovician) at three sections that span the boundary. All samples come from the shallow subtidal Bathyurid trilobite biofacies. Samples were broken into small pieces, and all skeletal fragments >2 mm were identified to the finest possible taxonomic level. Consistent with previous work on this interval, the relative abundance of trilobites declines sharply across the boundary, while the relative abundance of brachiopods increases. Absolute abundance data indicate that the decline in trilobite abundance is genuine and not an artifact of normalization. The trend is not easily explained by sampling bias, facies distribution, taphonomic regime, or sedimentation style.
The dramatic shift in abundance contrasts with relatively minor changes in relative genus richness across the boundary. This is partly ascribable to differences in the relative abundance structure of trilobite faunas. Though comparable numbers of trilobite and brachiopod genera occur above and below the boundary, the trilobite fauna from the upper Ibex Series has lower evenness then the lower Whiterock Series fauna. Hence sampled trilobite richness is high in the lower Whiterock despite the small number of specimens. This highlights the importance of collecting abundance data. Although these data suggest that in at least some cases richness and abundance patterns are not closely coupled, more robust richness data are necessary to confirm this conclusion.