Skip to main content Accessibility help

Reconstructing geographic range-size dynamics from fossil data

  • Simon A. F. Darroch (a1) and Erin E. Saupe (a2)


Ecologists and paleontologists alike are increasingly using the fossil record as a spatial data set, in particular to study the dynamics and distribution of geographic range sizes among fossil taxa. However, no attempts have been made to establish how accurately range sizes and range-size dynamics can be preserved. Two fundamental questions are: Can common paleo range-size reconstruction methods accurately reproduce known species’ ranges from locality (i.e., point) data? And, are some reconstruction methods more reliable than others? Here, we develop a methodological framework for testing the accuracy of commonly used paleo range-size reconstruction methods (maximum latitudinal range, maximum great-circle distance, convex hull, and alpha convex hull) in different extinction-related biogeographic scenarios. We use the current distribution of surface water bodies as a proxy for “preservable area,” in which to test the performance of the four methods. We find that maximum great-circle distance and convex-hull methods most reliably capture changes in range size at low numbers of fossil sites, whereas convex hull performs best at predicting the distribution of “victims” and “survivors” in hypothetical extinction scenarios. Our results suggest that macroevolutionary and macroecological patterns in the relatively recent past can be studied reliably using only a few fossil occurrence sites. The accuracy of range-size reconstruction undoubtedly changes through time with the distribution and area of fossiliferous sediments; however, our approach provides the opportunity to systematically calibrate the quality of the spatial fossil record in specific environments and time intervals, and to delineate the conditions under which paleobiologists can reconstruct paleobiogeographical, macroecological, and macroevolutionary patterns over critical intervals in Earth history.



Hide All
Anderson, S. 1977. Geographic ranges of North American terrestrial mammals. American Museum Novitates 2629:115.
Anderson, S. 1984a. Geographic ranges of North American birds. American Museum Novitates 2785:115.
Anderson, S. 1984b. Areography of North American fishes, amphibians, and reptiles. American Museum Novitates 2802:116.
Anderson, S. 1985. The theory of range-size distributions. American Museum Novitates 2833:120.
Aslan, A., and Behrensmeyer, A. K.. 1996. Taphonomy and time resolution of bone assemblages in a contemporary fluvial system: the East Fork River, Wyoming. Palaios 11:411421.
Barnosky, A. D., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G. O. U., Swartz, B., Quental, T. B., Marshall, C., McGuire, J. L., Lindsey, E. L., Maguire, K. C., Mersey, B., and Ferrer, E. A.. 2011. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471:5157.
Behrensmeyer, A. K. 1978. Taphonomic and ecologic information from bone weathering. Paleobiology 4:150162.
Behrensmeyer, A. K. 1991. Terrestrial vertebrate accumulations. In P. A. Allison, and D. E. G. Briggs, eds. Taphonomy: releasing the data locked in the fossil record. Topics in Geobiology 9:291335. Plenum, New York.
Behrensmeyer, A. K., Kidwell, S. M., and Gastaldo, R. A.. 2000. Taphonomy and paleobiology. Paleobiology 26:103147.
Behrensmeyer, A. K., Stayton, C. T., and Chapman, R. E.. 2003. Taphonomy and ecology of modern avifaunal remains from Ambesoli Park, Kenya. Paleobiology 29:5270.
Behrensmeyer, A. K., Fursich, F. T., Gastaldo, R. A., Kidwell, S. M., Kosnik, M. A., Kowalewski, M., Plotnick, R. E., Rogers, R. R., and Alroy, J.. 2005. Are the most durable shelly taxa also the most common in the marine fossil record? Paleobiology 31:607623.
Bickart, K. J. 1984. A field experiment in avian taphonomy. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 4:525535.
Bivand, R., and Rundel, C.. 2013. rgeos: interface to geometry engine-open source (GEOS). R package, Version 0:312.
Bivand, R., Keitt, T., and Rowlingson, B.. 2014. rgdal: bindings for the geospatial data abstraction library. R package, Version 0:816.
Botts, E. A., Erasmus, B. F. N., and Alexander, G.. 2013. Small range size and narrow niche breadth predict range contractions in South African frogs. Global Ecology and Biogeography 22:567576.
Brown, J. H., Stevens, G. C., and Kaufman, D. M.. 1996. The geographic range: size, shape, boundaries, and internal structure. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 27:597623.
Cardillo, M., Huxtable, J. S., and Bromham, L.. 2003. Geographic range size, life history, and rates of diversification in Australian mammals. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 16:282288.
Chen, I.-C., Hill, J. K., Ohlemuller, R., Roy, D. B., and Thomas, C. D.. 2011. Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science 333:10241026.
Darroch, S. A. F. 2012. Carbonate facies control on the fidelity of surface-subsurface agreement in benthic foraminiferal assemblages: implications for index-based paleoecology. Palaios 27:137150.
Darroch, S. A. F., and Wagner, P. J.. 2015. Response of beta diversity to pulses of Ordovician–Silurian mass extinction. Ecology 96:532549.
Darroch, S. A. F., Webb, A. E., Longrich, N., and Belmaker, J.. 2014. Paleocene–Eocene evolution of beta diversity among ungulate mammals in North America. Global Ecology and Biogeography 23:757768.
Desantis, L. R. G., Tracy, R. A. B., Koontz, C. S., Roseberry, J. C., and Velasco, M. C.. 2012. Mammalian niche conservatism through deep time. PLoS ONE 7:e35624.
Fahrig, L. 2003. Effects of habitat fragmentation on biodiversity. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 34:487515.
Finnegan, S., Heim, N., Peters, S., and Fischer, W. W.. 2012. Climate change and the selective signature of the Late Ordovician mass extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109:68296834.
Finnegan, S., Anderson, S. C., Harnik, P. G., Simpson, C., Tittensor, D. P., Byrnes, J. E., Finkel, Z. V., Lindberg, D. R., Liow, L. H., Lockwood, R., Lotze, H. K., McClain, C. R., McGuire, J. L., O-Dea, A., and Pandolfi, J. M.. 2015. Paleontological baselines for evaluating extinction risk in the modern oceans. Science 348:567570.
Foote, M. 2016. On the measurement of occupancy in ecology and paleontology. Paleobiology 42:707729.
Foote, M., and Miller, A. I.. 2013. Determinants of early survival in marine animal genera. Paleobiology 39:171192.
Foote, M., Ritterbush, K. A., and Miller, A. I.. 2016. Geographic ranges of genera and their constituent species: evolutionary dynamics, and extinction resistance. Paleobiology 42:269288.
Fraser, D. 2017. Can latitudinal richness gradients be measured in the terrestrial fossil record? Paleobiology 43:479494.
Fraser, D., Hassall, C., Gorelick, R., and Rybczynski, N.. 2014. Mean annual precipitation explains spatiotemporal patterns of Cenozoic mammal beta diversity and latitudinal diversity gradients in North America. PLoS ONE 9:e106499.
Gaston, K. J. 1996. Species-range-size distributions: patterns, mechanisms and implications. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 11:197201.
Gaston, K. J. 1998. Species-range size distributions: products of speciation, extinction and transformation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 353:219230.
Gaston, K. J. 2003. The structure and dynamics of geographic ranges. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Gaston, K. J. 2008. Biodiversity and extinction: the dynamics of geographic range size. Progress in Physical Geography 32:678683.
Gaston, K. J., and Fuller, R. A.. 2009. The sizes of species’ geographic ranges. Journal of Applied Ecology 46:19.
Gaston, K. J., and Spicer, J. I.. 2001. The relationship between range size and niche breadth: a test using five species of Gammarus (Amphipoda). Global Ecology and Biogeography 10:178188.
Goldberg, E. E., Lancaster, L. T., and Rhee, R. H.. 2011. Phylogenetic inference of reciprocal effects between geographic range evolution and diversification. Systematic Biology 604:451465.
Hadly, E. A., Spaeth, P. A., and Li, C.. 2009. Niche conservatism above the species level. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106:1970719714.
Hanson, C. B. 1980. Fluvial taphonomic processes: models and experiments. Pp. 156181 in A. K. Behrensmeyer, and A. Hill, eds. Fossils in the making. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Harnik, P. G., Simpson, C., and Payne, J. L.. 2012. Long-term differences in extinction risk among the seven forms of rarity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279:49694976.
Hendricks, J. R., Lieberman, B. S., and Stigall, A. L.. 2008. Using GIS to study palaeobiogeographic and macroevolutionary patterns in soft-bodied Cambrian arthropods. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 264:163175.
Hull, P. M., and Darroch, S. A. F.. 2013. Mass extinctions and the structure and function of ecosystems. Pp. 115157 in A. Bush, S. Pruss, and J. Payne, eds. Ecosystem paleobiology and geobiology. Paleontological Society, Boulder, Colo.
Hull, P. M., Darroch, S. A. F., and Erwin, D. H.. 2015. Rarity in mass extinctions and the future of ecosystems. Nature 528:345351.
Huntley, B., Collingham, Y. C., Green, R. E., Hilton, G. M., Rahbek, C., and Willis, S. G.. 2006. Potential impacts of climatic change upon geographical distributions of birds. Ibis 148:828.
[IUCN] International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. 2015. The IUCN red list of threatened species. Version 2015-4., downloaded on 19 November 2015.
Jablonski, D. 1987. Heritability at the species level: analysis of geographic ranges of Cretaceous mollusks. Science 238:360363.
Jablonski, D., and Roy, K.. 2003. Geographic range and speciation in fossil and living molluscs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 270:401406.
Janis, C. M., Scott, K. M., and Jacobs, L. L.. 1998. Evolution of Tertiary mammals of North America, Vol. 1. Terrestrial carnivores, ungulates, and ungulatelike mammals. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Jass, C. N., and George, C. O.. 2010. An assessment of the contribution of fossil cave deposits to the Quaternary paleontological record. Quaternary International 217:105116.
Jones, K. E., Purvis, A., and Gittleman, J. L.. 2003. Biological correlates of extinction risk in bats. American Naturalist 161:601614.
Kidwell, S. M., and Bosence, D. W.. 1991. Taphonomy and time-averaging of marine shelly faunas. In P.A. Allison, and D.E.G. Briggs, eds. Taphonomy: releasing the data locked in the fossil record. Topics in Geobiology 9:115209. Plenum, New York.
Kidwell, S. M., and Flessa, K. W.. 1996. The quality of the fossil record: populations, species, and communities. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science 24:433464.
Kidwell, S. M., Best, M. M. R., and Kaufman, D. S.. 2005. Taphonomic trade-offs in tropical marine death assemblages: differential time averaging, shell loss, and probable bias in siliciclastic vs carbonate facies. Geology 33:729732.
Kiessling, W., and Aberhan, M.. 2007. Geographical distribution and extinction risk: lessons from Triassic–Jurassic marine benthic organisms. Journal of Biogeography 34:14731489.
Kosnik, M. A., Hua, Q., Kaufman, D. S., and Wust, R. A.. 2009. Taphonomic bias and time-averaging in tropical molluscan death assemblages: differential half lives in Great Barrier Reef sediment. Paleobiology 35:565585.
Kowalewski, M., Goodfriend, G. A., and Flessa, K. W.. 1998. High-resolution estimates of temporal mixing within shell beds: the evils and virtues of time-averaging. Paleobiology 24:287304.
Kowalewski, M., Carroll, M., Casazza, L., Gupta, N., Hannis-Dal, B., Hendy, A., Krause, R. A. Jr., Labarbera, M., Lazo, D. G., Messina, C., Puchalski, S., Rothfus, T. A., Salgeback, J., Stempien, J., Terry, R. C., and Tomašových, A.. 2003. Quantitative fidelity of brachiopod-mollusk assemblages from modern subtidal environments of San Juan Islands, USA. Journal of Taphonomy 1:4365.
Lewin-Koh, N. J., Bivand, R., Pebesma, E. J., Archer, E., Baddeley, A., Bibiko, H. J., Dray, S., Forrest, D., Friendly, M., Giraudoux, P., Golicher, D., Rubio, V. G., Hausmann, P., Hufthammer, K. O., Jagger, T., Luque, S. P., MacQueen, D., Niccolai, A., Short, T., Stabler, B., and Turner., R. 2011. maptools: tools for reading and handling spatial objects. R package, Version 0.8-10. http://CRAN.
Livingston, S. D. 1989. The taphonomic interpretation of avian skeletal part frequencies. Journal of Archaeological Science 16:537547.
Lyons, S. K. 2003. A quantitative assessment of the range shifts of Pleistocene mammals. Journal of Mammology 84:385402.
Myers, C. E., and Lieberman, B. S.. 2010. Sharks that pass in the night: using Geographical Information Systems to investigate competition in the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 278:681689.
Noto, C. R. 2010. Hierarchical control of terrestrial vertebrate taphonomy over space and time: discussion of mechanisms and implications for vertebrate paleobiology. In P. A. Allison, and D. J. Bottjer, eds. Taphonomy: process and bias through time. Topics in Geobiology 32:287336. Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands.
Olszewski, T. 1999. Taking advantage of time-averaging. Paleobiology 25:226238.
Olszewski, T. 2011. Remembrance of things past: modelling the relationship between species’ abundances in living communities and death assemblages. Biology Letters 8:131134.
Olszewski, T., and Kaufman, D. S.. 2015. Tracing burial history and sediment recycling in a shallow estuarine setting (Copano Bay, Texas) using postmortem ages of the bivalve Mulinia lateralis . Palaios 30:224237.
Parmesan, C., Ryrholm, N., Stefanescu, C., Hill, J. K., Thomas, C. D., Descimon, H., Huntley, B., Kaila, L., Kullberg, J., Tammaru, T., Tennent, W. J., Thomas, J. A., and Warren, M.. 1999. Poleward shifts in geographic ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming. Nature 399:579583.
Pateiro-Lopez, B., and Rodruiguez-Casal, A.. 2009. Alphahull: generalization of the convex hull of a sample of points in the plane. R package, Version 0.2-0.
Payne, J. L., and Finnegan, S.. 2007. The effect of geographic range on extinction risk during background and mass extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104:1050610511.
Pebesma, E. J., and Bivand, R. S.. 2005. Classes and methods for spatial data in R. R News 5(2).
Peters, S. E., and Heim, N. A.. 2010. The geological completeness of paleontological sampling in North America. Paleobiology 36:6179.
Plotnick, R. E. F. 2017. Recurrent hierarchical patterns and the fractal distribution of fossil localities. Geology 45:295298.
Plotnick, R. E., Kenig, F., and Scott, A. C.. 2015. Using the voids to fill the gaps: caves, time, and stratigraphy. In D. G. Smith, R. J. Bailey, P. M. Burgess, and A. J. Fraser, eds. Strata and time: probing the gaps in our understanding. Geological Society of London Special Publication 404:233250.
Plotnick, R. E., Smith, F. A., and Lyons, S. K.. 2016. The fossil record of the sixth extinction. Ecology Letters 19:546553.
Purvis, A., Gittleman, J. L., Cowlishaw, G., and Mace, G. M.. 2000. Predicting extinction risk in declining species. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267(1456). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2000.1234.
R Development Core Team. 2015. R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria.
Raia, P., Passaro, F., Fulgione, D., and Carotenuto, F.. 2012. Habitat tracking, stasis, and survival in Neogene large mammals. Biology Letters 8:6466.
Raup, D. M. 1976. Species diversity in the Phanerozoic: an interpretation. Paleobiology 2:289297.
Runge, C. A., Tulloch, A., Hammill, E., Possingham, H. P., and Fuller, R. A.. 2015. Geographic range size and extinction risk assessment in nomadic species. Conservation Biology 29:865876.
Saupe, E. E., Hendricks, J. R., Portell, R. W., Dowsett, H. J., Haywood, A., Hunter, S. J., and Lieberman, B. S.. 2014. Macroevolutionary consequences of profound climate change on niche evolution in marine molluscs over the past three million years. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 281:20141995.
Saupe, E. E., Qiao, H., Hendricks, J. R., Portell, R. W., Hunter, S. J., Soberon, J., and Lieberman, B. S.. 2015. Niche breadth and geographic range size as determinants of species survival on geological time scales. Global Ecology and Biogeography 24:11591169.
Schnute, J. T., Boers, N., Haigh, R., and Couture-Beil, A.. 2008. PBS mapping, Version 2.59.
Stigall, A. L., and Lieberman, B. S.. 2006. Quantitative paleobiogeography: GIS, phylogenetic biogeographic analysis, and conservation insights. Journal of Biogeography 33:20512060.
Tomašových, A., and Kidwell, S. M.. 2010. The effects of temporal resolution on species turnover and on testing metacommunity models. American Naturalist 175:587606.
[USGS] U.S. Geological Survey. 2017. National hydrography dataset., last modified 3 August 2017.
Walther, G.-R., Post, E., Convey, P., Menzel, A., Parmesan, C., Beebee, T. J. C., Fromentin, J.-M., Hoegh-Goldberg, O., and Bairlein, F.. 2002. Ecological responses to recent climate change. Nature 416:389395.
Willis, J. C. 1922. Age and area. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Yu, J., and Dobson, F. S.. 2000. Seven forms of rarity in mammals. Journal of Biogeography 27:131139.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed