Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 561–568
Despite growing attention on the influence of functional diversity changes on ecosystem functioning, a palaeoecological perspective on the long-term dynamic of functional diversity, including mass extinction crises, is still lacking. Here, using a novel multidimensional functional framework and comprehensive null-models, we compare the functional structure of Cambrian, Silurian and modern benthic marine biotas. We demonstrate that, after controlling for increases in taxonomic diversity, functional richness increased incrementally between each time interval with benthic taxa filling progressively more functional space, combined with a significant functional dissimilarity between periods. The modern benthic biota functionally overlaps with fossil biotas but some modern taxa, especially large predators, have new trait combinations that may allow more functions to be performed. From a methodological perspective, these results illustrate the benefits of using multidimensional instead of lower dimensional functional frameworks when studying changes in functional diversity over space and time.