Genus-level compositional data from Ecological regime shift preserved in the Anthropocene stratigraphic record

Palaeoecological data are unique historical archives that extend back far beyond the last several decades of ecological observations. However, the fossil record of continental shelves has been perceived as too coarse (with centennial-millennial resolution) and incomplete to detect processes occurring at yearly or decadal scales relevant to ecology and conservation. Here, we show that the youngest (Anthropocene) fossil record on the northern Adriatic continental shelf provides decadal-scale resolution that accurately documents an abrupt ecological change affecting benthic communities during the twentieth century. The magnitude and the duration of the twentieth century shift in body size of the bivalve Corbula gibba is unprecedented given that regional populations of this species were dominated by small-size classes throughout the Holocene. The shift coincided with compositional changes in benthic assemblages, driven by an increase from approximately 25% to approximately 70% in median per-assemblage abundance of C. gibba. This regime shift increase occurred preferentially at sites that experienced at least one hypoxic event per decade in the twentieth century. Larger size and higher abundance of C. gibba likely reflect ecological release as it coincides with an increase in the frequency of seasonal hypoxia that triggered mass mortality of competitors and predators. Higher frequency of hypoxic events is coupled with a decline in the depth of intense sediment mixing by burrowing benthic organisms from several decimetres to less than 20 cm, significantly improving the stratigraphic resolution of Anthropocene fossil record and making it possible to detect sub-centennial ecological changes on continental shelves.