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Taphonomy's contributions to paleobiology

Abstract

Taphonomy established itself in paleontology primarily as a subdiscipline of paleoecology, but it has evolved into a much broader study of the ways in which preservation affects the fossil record. The past decade has seen a change in emphasis from descriptive taphonomic studies of fossil assemblages to more experimental, process-oriented investigations of necrolysis, stratification, and diagenesis of organic remains in modern environments. These actualistic studies are increasing the sophistication of taphonomic analysis in the fossil record by sharpening the diagnosis of bias in paleontological data and by providing a baseline for quantitative modeling of preservational patterns. The analysis of bias is also expanding into the evaluation of temporal resolution in the fossil record (sample acuity, stratigraphic completeness), and taphonomic research is thus contributing to broad-scale problems in evolution, biogeography, and biostratigraphy. In addition, taphonomic studies are providing new insights into paleoenvironmental reconstruction and into the direct paleobiological significance of post mortem processes such as the behavior of scavengers and the role of dead hardparts in structuring benthic communities. One of taphonomy's most promising new frontiers is comparative analysis applied to different taxonomic groups within assemblages and across environments, tectonic settings, and climatic regimes. All of this currently active research is contributing to a better understanding of the fossil record as the result of a dynamic, evolving, integrated system of biological and sedimentological processes that have both limited and enhanced knowledge of Earth history.

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