Community gradients in the Martinsburg formation (Ordovician), southwestern Virginia

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Studies in modern ecology indicate that most species are distributed independently along environmental gradients according to their individual requirements. Steep gradients often produce species associations separated by discontinuities; gradual gradients produce broadly-overlapping distributions. Approaching the distribution of species populations as a continuum, using gradient analysis, avoids artificial sub-division of totally intergrading distributions, yet permits discontinuities to emerge where present.

Faunas of the Martinsburg Formation (Ordovician) in southwestern Virginia offer an excellent opportunity to test the applicability of gradient analysis in a paleoecological setting. A broad spectrum of environments, from nearshore to open-marine, elastic to carbonate-dominated facies, provide both temporal and geographic variation against which to evaluate changes in species distributions.

Five classical, Petersen-type communities were recognized in the Martinsburg using cluster analysis: 1) Lingula, 2) bivalve, 3) Rafinesquina, 4) Onniella, and 5) Sowerbyella-dominated associations. Two gradient analysis techniques, ordination and Markov analysis, revealed the same basic associations. However, ordination and Markov analysis permit arrangement of these associations along one or more interpreted environmental gradients. Factors related to water depth and distance from elastic source areas, particularly bottom stability and disturbance frequency, appear to have been the most important of a complex of interrelated physical parameters.

The high-stress, nearshore end of the Martinsburg gradient complex was occupied by a Lingula association, followed seaward by an association of bivalves adapted to less stressed environments. Low-stress, open-shelf environments were occupied by Rafinesquina, Onniella, or Sowerbyella-dorninated associations. Broad overlap among these articulate brachiopod communities reflects variations within the open-shelf habitat.