Gastaldo, Robert A. Department of Geology, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
Last reviewed:August 2020
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- Fossil record and time resolution
- Relationship to paleoecology
- Related Primary Literature
- Additional Reading
A subdiscipline of paleobiology that investigates the processes of preservation and their influence on information in the fossil record. Taphonomy is the study of fossilization and considers the processes at work in the incorporation of living things into the sedimentary record (Fig. 1). Coined by Ivan A. Efremov in 1940, taphonomy involves all processes that affected the organism during its life, its transferral from the living world (biosphere) to the geological realm (lithosphere), and all physical and chemical interactions from the time of burial until collection. In addition to the conspicuous characteristics of the preserved organism that can be seen easily—morphological (external) and/or anatomical (internal) features—there are often less prominent details that record the fossil's history. Taphonomists are thus forensic scientists. By analyzing preserved details, paleontologists can understand an organism's mode of death or disarticulation; the biological processes that may have modified the remains before burial, including their use by hominids; the response of the organism or one of its parts to transport by animals, sediment, water, or wind; its residency time in a depositional setting before final entombment; and the alterations of tissues or skeletal parts within a wide range of chemical settings. The processes of fossilization appear to be environmentally site-specific, resulting in a mosaic of preservational traits in terrestrial and marine environments. Few fossil assemblages are exactly identical with regard to formative processes, but general patterns exist. An understanding of taphonomic assemblage features within its environmental context allows for a more accurate interpretation of the fossil record. See also: Fossil; Paleobiodiversity; Paleobotany; Paleoecology; Paleontology; Sedimentology
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