Project background - Linking the past to the present

Modern marine ecological studies investigating ecosystem responses to natural or anthropogenic environmental changes are normally restricted to annual or decadal time scales. This is because quantitative biological monitoring data are not available for earlier, pre-impact periods. Conversely, palaeobiology does not capture the last few hundred years, a period that has witnessed major ecological shifts, destroying or severely degrading many ecosystems. Thus, recognizing and evaluating environmental changes during the past centuries is crucial to

  1. assess the type, magnitude and rate of change and to clarify the underlying causes;
  2. assess historical baselines of “pristine” ecosystem conditions that can serve as targets for restoration and management efforts.


This project investigates two ecological key aspects of the younger history of the northern Adriatic Sea:

  • The degradation of epifaunal communities and soft-bottom molluscan assemblages due to anthropogenic impacts (bottom trawling, eutrophication, pollution etc.) as reflected in differences between the living surface- and the preserved subsurface-death assemblages.
  • The environmental factors that shaped ancient marine soft-bottom communities and their ecological evolution from mostly sessile epibenthic suspension feeders in the Palaeozoic to modern, infauna-dominated communities. In the northern Adriatic, this macroevolutionary temporal axis occurs as an east-western spatial transition between "retrograde", macroepifauna-dominated benthic assemblages (east) and modern, more infauna-dominated communities (west).




Main Goals

  1. Identify the composition of pre-impact benthic communities, a current research frontier in taphonomy applied to conservation biology.   

  2. Date the timing of ecological turnovers and test the impact of regional-scale nutrient increase and intense fishing on benthic community structure and on predation intensity.  

  3. Identify the original distribution patterns of the high biomass epifauna (HBE) in pre-industrial times.

  4. Based on the study's results, identify regions that might serve as a reference for restoration and conservation efforts in the northern Adriatic Sea.



Study site

The northern Adriatic Sea is particularly suited to study ecosystem modifications under human pressure. It ranks among the most degraded marine ecosystems worldwide and has a long history of intense human impact that began in Roman times and culminated in strong eutrophication and heavy fishing pressure in recent decades. This makes it an ideal model for studying the long-term evolution of (meta)community structure.