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How good is the fossil record
Moderator(s): Randall D. Isaac
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8/24/2012 at 1:12:06 AM GMT
Posts: 7
How good is the fossil record

I am responding to this post rather late, but here are some general comments for those interested.  More on this can be found in my essay on the Cambrian "explosion" on the BioLogos Forum website.

There is an entire field of scientific research referred to as "taphonomy" -- literally, "the study of death."   Taphonomic research includes investigating those processes active from the time of death of an organism until its final burial by sediment.  These processes include decomposition, scavenging, mechanical destruction, transportation, and chemical dissolution and alteration.  The ways in which the remains of organisms are subsequently mechanically and chemically altered after burial are also examined -- including the various processes of fossilization.  Burial and "fossilization" of an organism's remains in no way guarantees its ultimate preservation as a fossil.  Processes such as dissolution and recrystallization can remove all record of fossils from the rock.  What we collect as fossils are thus the "lucky" organisms that have avoided the wide spectrum of destructive pre- and post-depositional processes arrayed against them.

Soft-bodied organisms, and organisms with non-mineralized skeletons have very little chance of preservation under most environmental conditions.  The discovery of new soft-bodied fossil localities is always met with great enthusiasm.  Such localities are erratically and widely spaced geographically and in geologic time.

Even those organisms with preservable hard parts are unlikely to be preserved under "normal" conditions.  Studies of the fate of clam shells in shallow coastal waters reveal that shells are rapidly destroyed by scavenging, boring, chemical dissolution and breakage.  Occasional burial during major storm events is one process that favors the incorporation of shells into the sedimentary record, and their ultimate preservation as fossils.  Getting terrestrial vertebrate material into the fossil record is even more difficult.  The terrestrial environment is a very destructive one: with decomposition and scavenging together with physical and chemical destruction by weathering.

The potential for fossil preservation varies dramatically from environment to environment.  Preservation is enhanced under conditions that limit destructive physical and biological processes.  Thus marine and fresh water environments with low oxygen levels, high salinities, or relatively high rates of sediment deposition favor preservation.  Similarly, in some environments biochemical conditions can favor the early mineralization of skeletons and even soft tissues by a variety of compounds (eg. carbonate, silica, pyrite, and phosphate).  The likelihood of preservation is thus highly variable.  As a result, the fossil record is biased toward sampling the biota of certain types of environments, and against sampling the biota of others.  

In addition to these preservational biases, the erosion, deformation and metamorphism of originally fossiliferous sedimentary rock have eliminated significant portions of the fossil record over geologic time.  Furthermore, much of the fossil-bearing sedimentary record is hidden in the subsurface, or located in poorly accessible or little studied geographic areas.  For these reasons, of those once living species actually preserved in the fossil record, only a small portion have been discovered and described by science.  However, there is also the promise of continued new and important discovery.  

Keith Miller