Molluscan faunal turnover in the Plio–Pleistocene of the tropical western Atlantic has been attributed to drops in temperature or primary productivity, but these competing hypotheses have not been assessed ecologically. To test these alternatives, we compiled data on changing molluscan life habits and trophic composition over 12 million years derived from 463 newly made collections from the southwestern Caribbean. Shelf ecosystems have altered markedly in trophic structure since the Late Pliocene. Predatory gastropods and suspension-feeding bivalves declined significantly in abundance, but not in diversity, and reef-dwellers became common. By contrast, all other ecological life habits remained remarkably stable. Food-web changes strongly support the hypothesis that declining regional nutrient supply had an increasing impact on regional macroecology, culminating in a faunal turnover.