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Experimental Decay of Soft Tissues

  • Robert S. Sansom (a1)

Abstract

The exceptionally preserved fossil record of soft tissues sheds light on a wide range of evolutionary episodes from across geological history. Understanding how soft tissues become hard fossils is not a trivial process. A powerful tool in this context is experimentally derived decay data. By studying decay in a laboratory setting and on a laboratory timescale, an understanding of the processes and patterns underlying soft-tissue preservation can be achieved. The considerations and problems particular to experimental decay are explored here in terms of experimental aims, design, variables, and utility. Aims in this context can relate to either reconstruction of the processes of soft-tissue preservation, or to elucidation of the patterns of morphological transformation and data loss occurring during decay. Experimental design is discussed in terms of hypotheses and relevant variables: i.e., the subject organism being decayed (phylogeny, ontogeny, and history), the environment of decay (biological, chemical, and physical) and the outputs (how to measure decay). Variables and practical considerations are illustrated with reference to previous experiments. The principles behind application of experimentally derived decay data to the fossil record are illustrated with three case studies: the interpretation of fossil color, feasibility of fossil embryos, and phylogenetic bias in chordate preservation. A rich array of possibilities for further decay experiments exists and it is hoped that the methodologies outlined herein will provide guidance and a conceptual framework for future studies.

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