Novelties That Change Carrying Capacity


Correspondence to: Douglas H. Erwin, Department of Paleobiology National Museum of Natural History P.O. Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012. E-mail: erwind@commat;


Comparative developmental studies have revealed a rich array of details about the patterns and processes of morphological change in animals and increasingly in plants. But, applying these insights to the study of major episodes of evolutionary innovation requires understanding how these novel morphologies become established and sufficiently abundant (either as individuals within a species or as a clade of species) to be preserved in the fossil record, and, in many cases, to influence ecological processes. Evolutionary novelties may: (1) disappear without changing the species; (2) be associated with the generation (through selection or drift) of a new species; and if the latter (3) may or may not become ecologically significant. Only the latter are commonly preserved in the fossil record. These alternatives mirror the distinction among historians of technology between innovation and invention. Here, I argue that specific sorts of evolutionary inventions drive ecological transformation, essentially constructing an environment for themselves and ancillary organisms through ecological spillover effects, increasing the “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 318B:460–465, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.