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The origin of most animal phyla and classes during the Cambrian explosion has been hypothesized to represent an ‘early burst’ of evolutionary exploration of functional ecological possibilities. However, the ecological history of marine animals has yet to be fully quantified, preventing an assessment of the early-burst model for functional ecology. Here we use ecological assignments for 18,621 marine animal genera to assess the relative timing of functional differentiation versus taxonomic diversification from the Cambrian to the present day. We find that functional diversity increased more slowly than would be expected given the history of taxonomic diversity. Contrary to previous inferences of rapid ecological differentiation from the early appearances of all well-fossilized phyla and classes, explicit coding of functional characteristics demonstrates that Cambrian genera occupied comparatively few modes of life. Functional diversity increased in the Ordovician and, especially, during the recoveries from the end-Permian and end-Cretaceous mass extinctions. Permanent shifts in the relationship between functional and taxonomic diversity following the era-bounding extinctions indicates a critical role for these biotic crises in coupling taxonomic and functional diversity.


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Published by Nature Publishing Group