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Taphonomy and paleobiology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2019

Anna K. Behrensmeyer
Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, MRC 121, Washington, D.C. 20560. E-mail:
Susan M. Kidwell
Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, 5734 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637. E-mail:
Robert A. Gastaldo
Department of Geology, Colby College, Waterville, Maine 04901-4799. E-mail:


Taphonomy plays diverse roles in paleobiology. These include assessing sample quality relevant to ecologic, biogeographic, and evolutionary questions, diagnosing the roles of various taphonomic agents, processes and circumstances in generating the sedimentary and fossil records, and reconstructing the dynamics of organic recycling over time as a part of Earth history. Major advances over the past 15 years have occurred in understanding (1) the controls on preservation, especially the ecology and biogeochemistry of soft-tissue preservation, and the dominance of biological versus physical agents in the destruction of remains from all major taxonomic groups (plants, invertebrates, vertebrates); (2) scales of spatial and temporal resolution, particularly the relatively minor role of out-of-habitat transport contrasted with the major effects of time-averaging; (3) quantitative compositional fidelity; that is, the degree to which different types of assemblages reflect the species composition and abundance of source faunas and floras; and (4) large-scale variations through time in preservational regimes (megabiases), caused by the evolution of new bodyplans and behavioral capabilities, and by broad-scale changes in climate, tectonics, and geochemistry of Earth surface systems. Paleobiological questions regarding major trends in biodiversity, major extinctions and recoveries, timing of cladogenesis and rates of evolution, and the role of environmental forcing in evolution all entail issues appropriate for taphonomic analysis, and a wide range of strategies are being developed to minimize the impact of sample incompleteness and bias. These include taphonomically robust metrics of paleontologic patterns, gap analysis, equalizing samples via rarefaction, inferences about preservation probability, isotaphonomic comparisons, taphonomic control taxa, and modeling of artificial fossil assemblages based on modern analogues. All of this work is yielding a more quantitative assessment of both the positive and negative aspects of paleobiological samples. Comparisons and syntheses of patterns across major groups and over a wider range of temporal and spatial scales present a challenging and exciting agenda for taphonomy in the coming decades.

Research Article
Copyright © 2000 by The Paleontological Society 

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