Sponge borings and serpulid worm encrusters on a modern shell of the bivalve Mercenaria in North Carolina.

Skeleton in cave

An articulated wombat skeleton in Imperial-Diamond cave (Jenolan Caves).

Taphonomy[note 1] is the study of decaying organisms over time and how they become fossilized (if they do). The term taphonomy, (from the Greek taphos - τάφος meaning burial, and nomos - νόμος meaning law), was introduced to paleontology in 1940 by Russian scientist, Ivan Efremov, to describe the study of the transition of remains, parts, or products of organisms, from the biosphere, to the lithosphere, i.e. the creation of fossil assemblages.[1][2]

Taphonomists study such phenomena as biostratinomy, decomposition, diagenesis, and encrustation and bioerosion by sclerobionts.[3] (Sclerobionts are organisms which dwell on hard substrates such as shells or rocks.)

One motivation behind the study of taphonomy is to better understand biases present in the fossil record. Fossils are ubiquitous in sedimentary rocks, yet paleontologists cannot draw the most accurate conclusions about the lives and ecology of the fossilized organisms without knowing about the processes involved in their fossilization. For example, if a fossil assemblage contains more of one type of fossil than another, one can either infer that that organism was present in greater numbers, or that its remains were more resistant to decomposition.

During the late 20th century, taphonomic data began to be applied to other paleontological subfields such as behavioral paleobiology, paleoceanography, ichnology (the study of trace fossils) and biostratigraphy. By coming to understand the oceanographic and ethological implications of observed taphonomic patterns, paleontologists have been able to provide new and meaningful interpretations and correlations that would have otherwise remained obscure in the fossil record.

Experimental taphonomy testing usually consists of exposing the remains of organisms to various altering processes, and then examining the effects of the exposure.

It was thought that only tough, cuticle type soft tissue could be preserved by Burgess shale type preservation,[4] but an increasing number of organisms are being discovered that lack such cuticle, such as the probable chordate Pikaia and the shellless Odontogriphus.[5]

It is a common misconception that anaerobic conditions are necessary for the preservation of soft tissue; indeed much decay is mediated by sulfate reducing bacteria which can only survive in anaerobic conditions.[6] Anoxia does, however, reduce the probability that scavengers will disturb the dead organism, and the activity of other organisms is undoubtedly one of the leading causes of soft-tissue destruction.[6]

Plant cuticle is more prone to preservation if it contains cutan, rather than cutin.[6]

Plants and algae produce the most preservable compounds, which are listed according to their preservation potential by Tegellaar (see reference).[7]


  1. ^ From greek Taphos; literally meaning 'study of the grave'


  1. ^ [ Efremov, I. A. (1940) "Taphonomy: a new branch of paleontology" Pan-American Geology 74: pp. 81-93]
  2. ^ Martin, Ronald E. (1999) "1.1 The foundations of taphonomy" Taphonomy: A Process Approach Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, p.1, ISBN 0-521-59833-8
  3. ^ See Taylor and Wilson, 2003
  4. ^ Butterfield, N.J. (1990), "Organic preservation of non-mineralizing organisms and the taphonomy of the Burgess Shale", Paleobiology 16 (3): 272–286, 
  5. ^ Conway Morris, S. (2008), "A Redescription of a Rare Chordate, Metaspriggina walcotti Simonetta and Insom, from the Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian), British Columbia, Canada", Journal of Paleontology 82 (2): 424–430, doi:10.1666/06-130.1, 
  6. ^ Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Briggs1999
  7. ^ Tegelaar, E.W.; De Leeuw, J.W.; Derenne, S.; Largeau, C. (1989), "A reappraisal of kerogen formation", Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 53 (3): 03–3106, doi:10.1016/0016-7037(89)90191-9, 

Further readingEdit

  • Emig, C. C. (2002). Death: a key information in marine palaeoecology. In: Current topics on taphonomy and fossilization, Valencia. Col.lecio Encontres, 5: 21-26.
  • Greenwood, D. R. (1991), The taphonomy of plant macrofossils. In, Donovan, S. K. (Ed.), The processes of fossilisation, p.141-169. Belhaven Press.
  • Lyman, R. L. (1994), Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge University Press.
  • Shipman, P. (1981), Life history of a fossil: An introduction to taphonomy and paleoecology. Harvard University Press.
  • Taylor, P. D. and Wilson, M. A. (2003), Palaeoecology and evolution of marine hard substrate communities. Earth-Science Reviews 62: 1-103. [1]

External links Edit

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